How can school leaders improve attendance in an evidence-informed way?

As school leaders you know that attention from the media and politicians about the ‘attendance crisis’ is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is good to know that you are not alone in meeting these challenges. On the other hand, such attention on school issues often generates more heat than light.

Join our next webinar on this topic on 23 May to:

  • Shine a spotlight on the issues
  • Understand what are likely to be the ‘best bets’ for school leaders in addressing them.

Context: slowly improving attendance

First things first. As school leaders, your work in improving attendance has not been in vain. Overall attendance rates may not be at pre-pandemic levels, but the latest data for 2023-24 shows that these stand at 7% currently, against 7.3% last year. Persistent absence is also down from 21.2% to 20.7% currently.

Looking back wistfully at pre-pandemic attendance may not help your sense of wellbeing but, as the hackneyed saying goes, “we are where we are” and school leaders up and down the country are working relentlessly to ensure that where we are is not where we will be in the future. It is, however, important to recognise the little wins for what they are and celebrate them without accepting them as limits to our hopes and expectations.

Evidence: no silver bullets for addressing absence rates

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) assessment into the evidence for interventions to improve attendance (2022) is chastening. Their overall conclusions point to a lack of a silver bullet for addressing pupil absence. They found that there were large variations in strategies being researched, weaknesses in the quality of evidence about their effectiveness, and a notable lack of research into strategies in the UK context.

Thinking again of the positives, the EEF did indicate in their report some promise for strategies to increase parental engagement and targeted, responsive work with pupils. The main take-away from the report, though, is that nobody really knows what works with any certainty (and that improving the quality of the evidence base is urgently needed).

Insights: a plethora of research findings with which to work

Since the publication of the EEF’s work – and the Ofsted research and DfE guidance that also came out in 2022 – there has been a significant increase in the number of research reports published by organisations interested in social policy as it pertains to pupil attendance.

The Children’s Commissioner has been particularly busy in this area, as have bodies such as Public First, NESTA, the Centre for Social Justice as well as ImpactEd (who will co-present on our May webinar on the findings of their report published in January).

With input from families, children, official datasets and school-level data, each of these reports offers a window into both the barriers to full attendance and the impact of strategies to address these. School leaders certainly do not today face a shortage of recommendations for practice.

Summarising the evidence base on attendance

The proliferation of research insights does, however, present a problem for hard-pressed school leaders. How can you find the time to read and process all this information when you are the ones dealing with the incessant challenges of reducing absence on a daily basis?

Given my very recent experience of being a headteacher at a school facing such tough times, I empathise. It is the reason one of the first things I have done in my role at SSAT is to produce a summary of the evidence base for you: a one-stop shop which includes single-page summaries and signposts you and your team to where the full research reports can be found. I have also included some of the more insightful and (especially) useful academic papers about pupil attendance.

This summary will be available to those who attend our attendance webinar on 23 May, which will distil this rich seam of information further.

Synthesising the research into five ‘best bets’ for school leaders

On completing this work I noticed that throughout the evidence base there were some key insights that kept recurring. Intrigued by this, I wondered whether it might be possible to synthesise the findings into something even more manageable for school leaders, to support their work in addressing absence.

The outcome is the identification of five ‘best bets’ for improving attendance (remembering that there are no ‘silver bullets’). Each of these five suggestions includes three strands which offer those with strategic responsibility for attendance some ideas for reflecting upon and enhancing their provision.

I will explain each of these ‘best bets’ for schools to a greater extent in the May attendance webinar.

Culture: Reframing to focus on the positives rather than the negatives

The first of the ‘best bets’ and the one that is certainly the most important based on recent research findings, is about the importance of culture.

Those contributing to research repeatedly emphasise the importance to children (and their families) of belonging and a school’s regard for outcomes beyond examination success. Student voice and leadership is frequently cited as a strategy for making this sense of belonging extend beyond lip service, and it is increasingly clear that a focus on sanctions (at school and system level) is potentially more damaging than helpful.

Working hard, in challenging times, to refocus attention away from the deficits of absence and lateness to emphasise the surpluses of good attendance and punctuality is not easy but it would appear to be vital.

Next steps: Join our webinar; take part in our attendance and punctuality audit

Find out more and register here

What’s in it for you?

Our webinar is provided at a cost, but we think it is worth it. You will:

  • Hear more about this summary of research into attendance.
  • Receive the full document summarising and synthesising recent research.
  • Get to know what SSAT’s other four ‘best bets’ are for schools.
  • Hear deeper insights from the authors of one of the research reports.
  • Learn from a school that is enacting the ‘best bets’ and bucking absence trends.

Participants will also have the webinar cost discounted from our attendance and punctuality audit process (an independent, external validation of their work focused on the ‘best bets’) should they choose to take this up.

About the Project Lead

As I have outlined in my blog, my recent experience as a headteacher is helping to informing and shape our work on attendance and punctuality. I’m committed to helping school leaders make a difference, and getting more students into school more of the time is the biggest difference that we can make. If you want to find out more, discuss our offer on attendance and punctuality, or share any further insights you have in this area, please reach out to me direct at

What Schools Can Learn From Recent Research Into Attendance

Pupil attendance, especially persistent absence, has been badly hit by the pandemic and schools are increasingly expected to take evidence-informed action on pupil absence. This webinar will summarise emergent findings from recent attendance research and how these can help you shape your interventions.

Find out more

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