Attendance Matters: Getting to Grips with the Latest Research

Attendance Matters: Getting to Grips with the Latest Research

School leaders have long known that the attendance and punctuality of pupils is of the utmost importance. As a former headteacher, I began each termly Celebration Assembly with awards for the best and most improved attendance awards. The students would know beforehand that I was going to tell them that great attendance was the most important factor in the academic and social successes that are what schools are all about. Attendance matters. It always has.

But, because of the pandemic, attendance and punctuality have come to matter even more. The impact of Covid-19 on rates of pupil absence generally, and of persistent and severe absenteeism particularly, has been startling. This has led many commentators, including this article from The Guardian published at the start of the current academic year, to suggest that we are seeing a breakdown in the ‘social contract’ between parents, schools and the government about the importance of children attending school on a daily basis.

Indeed, so profound has the issue of school attendance become that the Ofsted handbook has been amended: whilst schools are rightly expected to “do all they reasonably can” in striving for high attendance, the inspectorate recognises that “the context in which schools operate has changed.” The ‘good’ judgement criterion begins by stating that “pupils have high attendance” and “are punctual to lessons” but provides the caveat that where this is not the case the school “the school takes appropriate, swift and effective action.”

Thus, for most school leaders, attendance and punctuality have joined safeguarding, the quality of education, and behaviour, as one of the ‘hot button’ issues that most concern them. Far greater emphasis is being placed on the importance of data analysis around attendance and punctuality, strategic thinking for long-term (and often hard-won) improvement, and the better engagement of stakeholders at all levels in responding to this societal issue.

Unsurprisingly, at the same time, there has been a proliferation of research reports produced by all manner of agencies about school attendance and punctuality. Ofsted’s Securing Good Attendance (February 2022) summarises the features of best practice as being to “listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate.” The DfE’s Working Together report (May 2022) provides information on how to address attendance and punctuality under several headings: expect, monitor, listen and understand, facilitate and formalise support, enforce.

Whilst these provide helpful materials for school leaders in meeting the challenges they face around improving school-wide attendance and punctuality, it can be a challenge in itself to remain on top of the wisdom that is being generated through these reports. Beyond that, the evidence base that some of the reports are drawn from is ambivalent or problematic. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation’s Attendance Interventions: Rapid Evidence Assessment (March 2022), concludes that there is a “large variation” in strategies, “weak” and “insufficient evidence” for conclusions about their effectiveness, and only “some evidence of promise” for two of the strategies described.

This post, however, is not intended to be a counsel of despair for school leaders. There remains work to be done but the research does point to potential pathways for those looking to enhance their provision. These include guidance from the Children’s Commissioner (July 2022) on reducing the risks of absence in the first week of the school year (which statistically presages ongoing issues throughout the year). Public First (September 2023) point to the importance of providing “intensive, nuanced support” for families and effective “signposting” to other agencies. NESTA (November 2023) look to the influence of data for identifying and pre-empting with “at-risk pupils” and for “social norms messaging” that draws from behavioural insights.

How can we help?

As mentioned earlier, it can be a challenge for school leaders to keep on top of such wide-ranging insights, and to implement them in your school’s daily practice, at a time when the very issues these reports seek to address are taking up most of your time. For this reason, SSAT are offering an Improving Attendance and Punctuality: Review of the Latest Research webinar for headteachers and leaders with strategic responsibility for the attendance and punctuality of pupils. This will take place on Tuesday 5 March 2024. Find out more.

The webinar will include a summary of the latest evidence, including some ‘best bets’ for improving attendance and punctuality, alongside presentations from two schools that have had some success in these areas. Delegates will also receive a complimentary 20-page summary of the latest research on attendance and punctuality.

At SSAT we also have an Improving Whole School Attendance and Punctuality offer which includes an audit tool for self-evaluation purposes and an external evaluation process for schools that are looking to receive feedback about their overall strategy and their practices. Details can be found here.

Email to find out how we can support you and your school.

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