Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Addressing attendance: Getting below the surface

EEF blog: Addressing attendance: Getting below the surface

How to support student attendance
Freya Morrissey
Freya Morrissey
Content Specialist for Learning Behaviours

Freya Morrissey, EEF specialist for learning behaviours and secondary school leader of English & Literacy, explores the importance of digging into the detail of attendance statistics.

Blog •3 minutes •

Grace, in Year 9, is absent from school again.

As her attendance has declined, Grace’s tutor has called home multiple times to encourage her to attend. A letter has been sent to explain the absence policy and remind her family that every day matters”. But these approaches do not seem to have worked, and now, a third of the way through the school year, Grace’s attendance has dropped below 90%.

Mr Baxter, Grace’s Head of Year, wants to try a different strategy to support her and other students on a similar worrying attendance trajectory.

He knows his school is not alone in this challenge. He has spoken to colleagues in different schools who take an array of different approaches to supporting attendance. For example, he is aware of tight systems of increasingly escalating letters and meetings with families; breakfast provided for some students at the start of the day; small nurture’ tutor groups, and interventions to develop social and emotional skills.

Each of these approaches are designed to support students to attend school and lessons more frequently. They also demonstrate the efforts school staff across the country go to every day, to support their students. Mr Baxter knows he can’t do everything, though. So, what might his next steps be?

Getting below the surface

The problem with headline attendance figures is that they don’t tell us much about the problem: they just tell us there is a problem. The percentage is only the beginning of the story.

To devise a potentially effective solution, we need to go beyond the symptom’ of absence and explore possible underlying causes to more precisely diagnose the issue that we are trying to solve.

By looking more closely at attendance data and talking with students and families, a range of different issues can be uncovered, which will be both individual and contextual. This is not an exhaustive list, but factors might include:

  • Illness, of the student or others in the family
  • Anxiety and mental health challenges
  • Family expectations and beliefs
  • Commitments outside of school
  • Logistical difficulties making it difficult to get to or from school
  • Influence of peers
  • Sense of disengagement and lack of belonging – a lack of connectedness’ with the school
  • Avoidance of specific lessons, due to negative relationships or perceptions
  • Avoidance of lessons with a high literacy content, due to difficulties with reading
  • Undiagnosed or unsupported SEN, making it difficult to access lesson content

Digging beneath the surface of headline attendance percentages could help Mr Baxter identify specific factors that are particularly relevant to Grace and her peers, so he can consider approaches that are appropriately matched to his students’ needs.

A team effort

To facilitate a thoughtful and diagnostic approach, wider systems within the school need to work effectively. Teachers and school leaders must be able to reliably gather, report, access and analyse data, and work together to take appropriate and targeted actions. Within our contexts, it may be helpful to consider:

  • Does the school have a complete set of attendance data, or are there uncertainties and gaps that need to be addressed? (e.g. inconsistent records if pupils attend alternative provision)
  • Are robust processes in place for staff to report on partial absences during the school day, and is this data collated, accessible and explored?
  • How is qualitative data collected to help diagnose and understand reasons for persistent absence?
  • Who is responsible for understanding the attendance picture in school and is the relevant data accessible?
  • Where action is required by multiple staff (e.g. tutors phoning home when attendance trigger points are reached), is this carried out consistently? If new approaches are introduced, are the necessary resources and time provided to carry out the actions?

Further resources to explore:

Attendance: Beyond the Percentage – A blog from Bradford Research School, further exploring the details behind headline attendance data.

FFT Edu Data Lab: Are pupils who live further away from their school absent more often? – An exploration of a logistical factor affecting attendance.

EEF: Attendance Interventions rapid evidence assessment – A summary of existing research on interventions that aim to improve pupils’ school attendance.