How can we improve attendance in the wake of Covid?

New EEF research offers some best bets for getting children back in the classroom and keeping them there after the pandemic's disruptions, writes Kirsten Mould

New EEF research offers some best bets for getting children back in the classroom and keeping them there after the pandemic's disruptions, writes Kirsten Mould

18 Mar 2022, 5:00

Aisha is in Year 6 and has not been attending school due to anxiety. She is sick every morning and gains deep-rooted comfort from being in her bedroom and close to both of her parents, who work from home and support her.

This is a real challenge some young people and their families face every day, and it can be difficult to know what schools can do to get their pupils back into the classroom, where we know they learn best.

Covid-19 has exacerbated absenteeism, and, on a national level, attendance is still well below pre-pandemic levels. The DfE has published new guidance to support schools to increase attendance, including asking them to consider what targeted support they have in place.

Quick fixes such as reward vouchers, attendance certificates and penalty fines can be successful in supporting some school refusers. But what can be done for those who are persistently absent from school, for whom such measures just don’t work?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every young person who is struggling like Aisha is facing a different set of barriers. However, the EEF has recently published a rapid evidence assessment that examines the best available research to find out our ‘best bets’ for improving attendance.  

The review looked at the evidence for eight different approaches – including incentives, disincentives and mentoring – to identify strategies that could help. Overall, it found that the research on how to improve attendance is weak. But it did find some evidence of promise for the following approaches:

Monitoring attendance

Proactively monitoring and identifying pupils in need of extra support is crucial. In schools, this may be carried out by the education welfare officer, attendance officer and key member/s of the senior team and teaching staff as part of their safeguarding procedures. Establishing the reasons underlying a pupil’s low attendance, looking for patterns and changes in their attendance and drawing comparisons is key.

Responsive and targeted approaches

The review found positive impacts for responsive and targeted approaches, where schools aim to address the individual causes behind a pupil’s persistent absence. One example highlighted in the report involved a social worker identifying barriers and intervening to overcome them. This could mean assigning an older “walking buddy” for a pupil with high absences due to transport issues.

Communicating and engaging with parents

Parental engagement can take the form of a wide range of ‘light-touch’ approaches such as communicating the importance of regular attendance to parents via emails, phone calls or letters. Whatever the format, these communications can encourage attendance by informing parents about their child’s absence rate and comparing this to the national average.

Parental engagement could also involve discussions to gain further insights from pupils and their families about low attendance. These conversations could lead to an increased understanding of each child’s individual barriers and, in turn, helpful remedial steps such as referrals for school counselling, support for parents/carers, substance misuse intervention groups and so on.

While there is little evidence to indicate exactly what shape parental engagement ought to take, the strategy shows real promise, making it a key area for future research to explore. The EEF’s guidance report, Working with parents to support children’s learning, offers practical advice on this area of teaching and learning.

To support Aisha, the school invested time in improving their connections with her family through regular meetings attended by the deputy headteacher. This same member of staff made it a priority to be present at the school gate each morning, meeting with parents informally at drop-off.

As a result, Aisha has recently achieved a half-term of full attendance; she knows the road is getting smoother for her every day. Regular communication between home and school continues.

The EEF’s rapid evidence review offers practical suggestions for how schools can approach poor attendance. It also indicates that there is much more for us to learn in this area to ensure pupils and their families have adequate access to support and schools have the clarity they need to help map a path back into the classroom.

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One comment

  1. WWhippet

    The article has a great deal to recommend it and, as a parent and school governor, I welcome the fact that effort is being put into finding practical, evidence based, solutions. However, I am surprised that the author claims that ‘penalty fines can be successful’ in increasing attendance, as there seems to be no substantive evidence to support this. The EEF’s rapid evidence assessment could only find two American studies that looked at punitive legal and financial measures. One of those studies only found a very small positive outcome, while the other found that such disincentives actually reduced attendance.

    Can we please stop supporting the use of such harmful interventions as penalty fines, especially when the evidence for their efficacy is non-existent? ‘Quackery’, and make no mistake, that’s exactly what it is, is harmful to our society and especially our children.

    There is broad consensus and strong evidence that the most significant predictor of academic achievement in school is poverty, i.e. poorer children tend to have poorer academic outcomes. With this in mind, the use of financial sanctions against parents, to encourage their children’s academic achievement, seems positively perverse.

    If we are really serious about improving educational outcomes, we need to tackle the deprivation faced by too many of our families. That problem, however, needs to be tackled at a governmental level. Sadly, the current Government seem to find it easier to distract Local Authorities, schools and everyone else with an undue focus on attendance statistics and reliance on threatening the vulnerable.