Attendance is at the top of most school leaders’ priority list, yet we hear every day how sticky this challenge is.
The schools we speak to across ImpactEd Group tell us the approaches they used pre-pandemic are simply no longer working. The data across England would seem to bear this out: persistent absence in summer 2023 was 24.3 per cent, compared to 21 per cent in the spring term and 24.9 per cent in autumn.
Studies from the EEF, Public First, the CSJ and others have made welcome contributions to the evidence base, but there is much work to do to get under the bonnet of the absence challenge. Further insight as well as sustained effort is needed to ensure that well-intended initiatives to address absence have the impact we want.
To this end ImpactEd Group, who work with schools and social purpose organisations to make better decisions using good evidence, has launched the Understanding Attendance project. The project aims to equip teachers and school leaders with meaningful data into the drivers of pupil absence in their setting.
Recognising that the factors behind attendance are complex and often context-dependent, the project does not aim to offer one-size-fits-all solutions; much of our focus is on helping school leaders understand the underlying influences of attendance in their specific setting. With over 200 schools already participating in the project though, early themes are emerging.
Belonging as much as behaviour
Perhaps the most striking early insight from our data is the importance of pupil belonging. Using established surveys to measure factors such as sense of school involvement, we find notable correlations.
For example, there is a statistically significant association between pupils’ sense of belonging to a school and their actual likelihood of attending school. Small differences are associated with very different trends: the gap between pupils in the top 20 per cent of school attendance and those in the bottom 20 per cent was a nine-percentage point difference on this belonging scale.
The questions behind this are revealing. On a five-point scale, pupils in the bottom 20 per cent of school attendance scored 2.88 in response to the question “I feel like a real part of the school”. By contrast, those same pupils scored 4.25 out of 5 in response to “There are consequences if I skip lessons”. This would seem to indicate that the barrier is not awareness of sanctions as much as more fundamental questions about pupils feeling part of their school.
Different drivers for different groups
Another important feature of our research is our ability to link back to granular data from schools on pupil characteristics. For example, we find that for pupils in years 9, 10 and 11, the correlation between school engagement and attendance is much higher than it is for younger year groups. Comments from our school partners suggest this may be associated with increased demands of curriculum content as examinations approach.
Gender differences are also pronounced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, feeling safe at school was much more strongly associated with attending school for girls than boys. This trend was continued for questions on making friends and dealing with bullying. By contrast, reporting that their school or teacher cared when they missed school was much more associated with attendance for males than females.
Getting beneath the surface
These are early findings based on summer term 2022/3; as the number of schools involved grows, our findings will evolve. For example, we can’t currently say definitively whether sense of belonging drives attendance, or school absenteeism means a lower sense of belonging. The more schools that collaborate, the clearer the picture will become.
One message resonates above all, however: that attendance is a challenge everyone needs to come together to address, and achieving a shift will be a result of nationally and locally coordinated efforts – not one policy change.
Better tools to provide insight into what those efforts are one part of the jigsaw. We will share more findings over the coming months as our project progresses.