10 March 2023

We must act on the school attendance emergency


Forget what some might tell you: schools in England have come a long way in recent times.

Behaviour is better, classrooms are safer, the curriculum is more challenging and interesting, and teaching approaches are more effective. Oh, and the focus on systematic synthetic phonics means that 1 million more children are at school now who started reading better and sooner than if things had been left as they were.

But none of this matters if a kid isn’t in school to actually benefit from it. And right now school attendance is nothing less than a national emergency. Years and years of hard work to improve school attendance by teachers, families and others were blown away by the pandemic, and even though that’s behind us, too many kids just haven’t got back into good attendance habits.

A few figures illustrate how bad things have got.

Pre-pandemic primary school attendance was around 96% The latest figure for this year so far.is 93.8%. That might not sound like a huge difference, but it’s equivalent to a child missing two and a half weeks of school over the year – nearly a week more than before Covid. At secondary schools the situation is even worse: attendance this year to date is only 90.8%, meaning the average child is effectively missing a whole month of school over the full year.

Of course, these are just averages. There are still be loads of kids with 100% or really high attendance, so to get such low overall figures so low there must also be plenty of children who are missing school on an alarmingly regular basis.

And alarming is the word for stats like these: before the pandemic 11% of pupils missed more than 10% of school sessions; right now it’s more than double that. That’s 2 million kids missing school roughly every fortnight. Even more worrying is the number who now have attendance below 50%, with the last official stats suggesting 110,000 pupils went in less often than they stayed home.

It’s not as though people haven’t noticed the issue.  The Children’s Commissioner for England has been sounding the alarm since she took up the post. The Department for Education has an attendance task force to tackle things, with people from education, social care, the police, health and so on. Just this week the Education Select Committee had a hearing about persistent absence amongst disadvantaged pupils. There’s lots of activity, but so far things aren’t budging much. There are glimmers of hope though.

One of the brilliant things about the English school system is the amount of data available, at every level you can think of. Many other countries just don’t have this.

If you’re not careful it can mean policymakers get trapped in a statistical morass, bogged down in meaningless and contradictory information. There’s also a risk that people start interfering in things that are someone else’s responsibility just because they’ve spotted something. But if you’re clear about what you’re interested in, and disciplined enough to not get distracted, it is possible to draw out useful findings that can point towards effective practices that can then be spread more widely.

Since the pandemic, the Department for Education has set up a process whereby schools can automatically share attendance data, almost in real-time. Around 80% of schools have opted in, which means every couple of weeks the world can see how absences are going up and down across the country. Importantly, the data collected is not used to hold schools to account: no Headteacher will get a call from the DfE asking why Year 10’s attendance has dropped or whatever. There are already ways schools are kept on their toes over this stuff, and keeping this new system separate meant Heads were willing to participate to everyone’s benefit.

But the data can be used to spot which schools or groups of schools are doing well in getting attendance back towards pre-Covid levels. For instance, we can work out what a school’s attendance is now as a percentage of its attendance in 2019. The raw stats then need to be combined with information that the Government has on each school’s profile and context – like the percentage of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds – to spot the real attendance superstars that stand out from similar schools.

Once this is done, officials could and should be calling those places up and asking the staff there ‘what are you doing that’s working so well?’ (or ‘sharing best practice’ in management speak). That may not find anything new or innovative; from my conversations with school leaders it feels like the stuff that is making the difference now is the same stuff that worked in the past, but that a lot more of it is needed.

Perhaps it requires two full-time staff in charge of attendance, where before one was enough. Or a home visit every day for a week to get a child back to school, where a couple used to be enough. And when pupils are back in school, specific help to catch up what they’ve missed.

Whatever it is, we need to know, and fast. The first step in educational Covid recovery for kids is being back in school regularly. We have the data and experts out there to crack this and get attendance up to and beyond 2019 levels, so let’s get to it. 

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.