Schools are well aware of the challenges associated with educational transitions. We know that moving into secondary school is difficult for many children, as are other educational milestones.
Today the first report from ImpactEd Group’s ‘Understanding Attendance’ project suggests that for pupil attendance there is an important ‘second transition’ that warrants further attention.
The ‘second transition’ challenge
The project aims to equip school leaders to understand the drivers of pupil absence in their setting, and share lessons for how attendance can be improved.
Our first report draws on attendance data from over 200,000 young people and questionnaire data from more than 30,000 of those pupils.
One key finding is on the importance of transitions. We find a more pronounced decline in attendance between years 7 and 8 than any other year group transition. The differences for some groups are particularly large: Pupils with SEND and eligible for pupil premium had average attendance rates of 89 per cent in year 7, which dropped to 83 per cent in year 8.
Pupils’ scores in social and emotional measures related to attendance were also much lower in year 8. This was particularly the case for their sense of safety in school, including issues like bullying and friendship, for example. This score was 10 per cent lower for year 8 students than those in year 7.
Drivers of decline
These challenges are not entirely novel. Our previous research has shown that pupil wellbeing tends to decline during the teenage years, for example. However, the pronounced year 7 to year 8 shift is something that we think deserves spotlighting.
Our partner schools tell us that when students settle into secondary school, friendship issues can often arise towards the end of year 7 as peer groups form and change. Challenges associated with post-Covid education, including an increase in behavioural incidents, may be compounding these.
Our data also suggests that students’ sense of belonging and community plays a role. We found a statistically significant correlation between attendance and sense of belonging for year 8 but not for year 7, implying that as children move beyond induction in secondary school, feeling connected to the school community may be even more important for attendance. Pupils’ scores on this measure of school belonging were 9 per cent lower in year 8 than year 7.
It is likely that these issues pre-date the current attendance challenge: there has often been talk in the sector of a ‘year 8 dip’. But trends in society may be heightening them. For example, the CSJ’s recent report indicates that parents’ relationships with their child’s school are particularly strained at secondary, and that for many families the perceived necessity of school attendance has decreased.
Addressing the challenge
Our research also points to a number of promising areas that schools could consider. Chief among these is ensuring a positive and inclusive whole-school culture around attendance. In our sample, higher-attending pupils scored 13 per cent higher in response to “I feel the teachers here respect me” than lower-attending pupils.
One of our partner schools summarised their approach as “creating a positive buzz” around attendance. They have a ‘small wins’ section in regular staff meetings and celebrate pupils who gone from inconsistent to more consistent attendance (rather than promoting high attendance only). They have also developed “attendance ambassadors”: pupils who have improved attendance over time, lead celebrations for peers and demonstrate ownership of attendance.
Similarly, the evidence suggests the value of reinforcing opportunities to build peer relationships, in particular the use of extra-curricular and breakfast clubs. Given that relationship building appears to be one of the primary drivers of the year 8 attendance challenge, focusing efforts here is likely to yield significant benefit.
As the project continues, we welcome more schools to join the research cohort. We will be sharing more on the strategies that schools can use to address a deep set of challenges. But considering greater focus on the year 7 to year 8 transition as one part of that approach may not be a bad place to start.