Addressing ‘avoidable absence’ is a clear focus for policymakers as schools recover from the pandemic, but what do we really know about what works when it comes to attendance interventions? A new evidence review aims to shed some light, as Kate Parker finds out in this TES article.
Imagine if every time you took your register, the responses of “yes, Miss” or “they’re not here again, Sir” were beamed directly to the Department for Education.
This might sound like something from dystopian fiction, but it is not far from one of the suggestions being touted as a way to help tackle what the DfE calls “avoidable absence” in schools.
In January this year, while giving evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee, children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza called for “live data” on attendance to be made available through Management Information Systems (MIS).
- The pandemic has exacerbated what was already a challenging picture around persistent absence: almost 1.8 million pupils were persistently absent in the autumn term 2021.
- The government has prioritised tackling persistent absence, with children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza calling for “live data” on attendance to be made available.
- The Education Endowment Foundation has conducted a rapid evidence assessment review of eight school-based interventions but found the evidence base was weak, with only two showing an evidence-based positive impact.
- The EEF advises that schools work on individual, contextual responses rather than one-size-fits-all interventions while more evidence is collected.
It’s just one of a string of recent ideas for how to improve attendance. In August last year, the DfE set about recruiting “attendance advisers” to work with local authorities and multi-academy trusts.
Then, in January, plans to introduce new national rules around parental fines for unauthorised absences were unveiled, along with the launch of a consultation on proposals to improve the consistency of school attendance support and management.
Meanwhile, on the research side, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has today published a new rapid evidence assessment review on attendance interventions.
It’s clear that attendance is high on the agenda for policymakers – and rightly so, many teachers and school leaders would argue, as the Covid pandemic has had a huge impact here.
But what is the scale of the problem? According to a recent report by de Souza, in the autumn term 2021, almost 1.8 million pupils were persistently absent – missing at least 10 per cent of school sessions – and 122,000 children were missing at least half of school sessions. The report also found that the number of children in England who never go to school at all is not reliably recorded.
But while Covid might have exacerbated things – it’s been reported that almost twice as many children are estimated to be persistently absent now than before the pandemic – the issue cannot be solely attributed to that. Government statistics for the academic year 2017-18 found that 11.2 per cent of pupils were persistently absent from school. And in 2018-19, the last “normal” school year before the pandemic, the rates of persistent absence were 10.9 per cent.
The effects of absence
So even prior to the pandemic, on average, one in nine pupils were missing a significant chunk of school. And, as research shows, that can have a big impact on attainment.
The EEF rapid evidence assessment review cites a 2012 study from Johns Hopkins University in the US, which found that poor attendance at school is linked to poor academic attainment across all stages.
It also cites research published by the DfE in 2016 that found that key stage 2 pupils with no absence are 1.3 times more likely to achieve level 4 or above, and 3.1 times more likely to achieve level 5 or above, than pupils who missed 10-15 per cent of all sessions.
The effects go beyond academic achievement, though: the EEF points to research that found poor attendance is linked to antisocial characteristics, delinquent activity and negative behavioural outcomes.
On top of this, there’s the matter of safeguarding. If vulnerable children are not in school, teachers can’t monitor them and raise any concerns – something that de Souza has said we should be particularly worried about.
Given these consequences, it’s understandable that the government would be throwing their weight behind any solution that appears to tackle the problem. Yet some of the measures they have suggested have already been met with criticism: a recent poll by the parent group Parentkind found that 73 per cent of parents disagree with schools or local authorities imposing fines on families for unauthorised absences.
And research published by Square Peg, a grassroots social impact organisation, found that parents of children who are persistently absent felt that the issues were already “exacerbated by an inflexible, rigid system response that refused to authorise absence arising from hidden disabilities or unrecognised challenges, in particular, mental health”.
The big-picture solutions are clearly not straightforward. So, beyond what the government is suggesting, what can schools do to improve attendance?
The EEF review tries to shed some light on which interventions might work – but, as its authors admit, we are still some way from that light being bright enough to illuminate a clear path ahead.
Jon Kay is the head of evidence synthesis at the EEF and one of the authors of the report. He explains that the review was born out of demand from schools for a better evidence base for strategies around improving attendance.
It details the evidence for and against eight specific school-based approaches: mentoring, teaching of social and emotional skills, behaviour interventions, meal provision, incentives and disincentives, extracurricular activities, parental engagement, and responsive and targeted approaches.
Around 72 studies met the researchers’ criteria for inclusion in the review. It’s a small sample size – and that, Kay explains, is a key problem with research in this area.
“There isn’t a large evidence base, particularly in England,” he explains.
Another problem with the evidence is that school refusal and poor attendance are incredibly complex issues, and it is not always easy to align research with reality.
“We’re aware that there’s often a disconnect between practice and research because, historically, a lot of research is very academic and it isn’t as directly connected with practice as we might hope,” says Kay.
Exacerbating bad habits
Teachers, of course, already know how complicated this area is. According to Matt Whittle, associate assistant headteacher and attendance lead at Corpus Christi Catholic High School in Lancaster, tackling low attendance is fraught with challenges that fall outside of a school’s control.
He says that the biggest causes “have their roots in home, upbringing and peer influences that for many pupils, particularly the most disengaged, have a greater pull than a desire to do well in school”.
The pandemic, he adds, exacerbated this: where there were bad habits, it cemented them further. “Some pupils were very reluctant to come out of lockdown and had grown very accustomed to being at home, learning in front of a computer screen,” he says. “For some, this was a natural proclivity; for others, this was sheer laziness, and everything in between.”
The pandemic also offered myriad new excuses for poor attendance, he adds. Some pupils supposedly had Covid or were identified as close contacts of someone with Covid multiple times. Others claimed to have symptoms, but then tested negative a few days later, and a lot of existing poor attenders fell particularly poorly after their vaccinations.
That isn’t to say those students didn’t have genuine reasons to be absent, but, as mentioned earlier, it’s not straightforward – particularly when you consider existing vulnerabilities.
Reasons for persistent absence are complex, especially for children with special educational needs or disabilities, says Margaret Mulholland, SEND and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
“It’s such a mix in terms of both physical health illness and vulnerability in relation to those medical needs, and then mental health,” she says. “We know that young people with SEND have a far greater propensity to mental health issues, and that’s been heightened through the pandemic, with many finding it very stressful to re-engage with school.”
Tamsin Ford, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, recently summed up this part of the problem in an interview with Tes.
“School is a really hard place for some children to be,” she said. “If you have special educational needs that aren’t being supported, or if you get very anxious and your anxiety problem isn’t being dealt with, then you might feel better off when not at school.”
Friendship problems can also play a part, she added: “Teenagers who are really struggling in school, perhaps because they’re being bullied or because they’re very socially isolated and they simply can’t cope – if they come from a family where they can’t just go home, they will truant.”
To make matters even harder, she continued, the research around absenteeism is “plagued with sloppy terminology”.
“For example, at one point, when I first started training, there was felt to be a complete difference between school refusal – a child who wouldn’t go to school because they couldn’t, because they were so anxious or depressed, which was seen as primarily an emotional problem – and truancy, which was associated with being bad, essentially,” she explained. “But it’s much more difficult and nuanced than that and, in fact, our research demonstrates a stronger association between depression and unauthorised absence.”
Overall, it’s a complicated – and, for teachers, frustrating – picture. So, what can schools do about it?
The EEF review proves that the way forward isn’t easy. Kay and his team found that the evidence for many interventions is poor overall, with only two out of the eight that they looked at reporting positive impact. Those were parental engagement and responsive and targeted approaches.
There are a number of reasons for this. For one, the majority of the studies, bar three, took place in the US – which, as the review says, could limit their applicability in an English context.
It adds: “The overall evidence base for attendance interventions that assess attendance or absenteeism is of limited quality. Over two-thirds of the studies included in the review were considered to have some concerns or a high risk of bias.”
And Kay believes that the pandemic has also weakened the research.
“We’re synthesising past research and a lot of research hasn’t been able to take place during Covid,” he says. “I definitely wouldn’t want schools to say we’re not going to use these strategies, particularly in response to Covid where we know it’s a really unique situation with real challenges in terms of mental health and wellbeing.”
With this in mind, Kay stresses that no school should rule out any of the six interventions that were found not to have a positive impact.
“I definitely wouldn’t say mentoring doesn’t work, or incentives don’t work. A lot of the areas where we’ve not found promising results are areas where the evidence is really, really weak,” he explains.
Context is key
Indeed, when it comes to mentoring, for example, the report says: “The evidence base linking mentoring interventions and pupil attendance is limited in size and has serious methodological flaws. Mentoring programmes may therefore represent a promising area for building the evidence base in England.”
Where does that leave schools, then? Without clear evidence of impact for the majority of interventions, should they simply try out whatever they fancy in the hope that it might help?
In a sense, yes, says Kay. He points out that while it might be “a slightly boring result” to say that “the way to improve attendance is to consider carefully what the causes of low attendance are [in your context], and then try and choose from a range of strategies”, that’s exactly the key message here.
One example of a school that has had success with improving its attendance using interventions not supported by the EEF review is Rivers Academy West London. At the school, each student has an academic mentor and, according to vice-principal Sarah Johnson-Scott, they have been pivotal to raising attendance post-lockdown.
“These are the people who see our children once a day, every single day,” she says. “They all have a one-to-one meeting and, as part of that, they talk about attendance, and will stress to children the importance of being in school, from an academic and mental health perspective. They work really closely with our students who have found the transition back to school after Covid challenging.”
That daily interaction ensures that mentors understand students’ experience of school and informs support, which can then be tailored to an individual’s circumstances. The mentors are also the key communicator with parents, and relay information about the child’s positive achievements and improvements; this, Johnson-Scott says, emphasises the responsibility and role of parents in partnership with the school.
As we have learned, parental engagement is one area in which the EEF found a “small” positive impact. Yet Rivers Academy also employs an intervention that is based around social and emotional skills, for which the review says there isn’t enough evidence – although that intervention is arguably delivered in a responsive and targeted way, a characteristic that was found to have an impact.
Johnson-Scott explains that the school identified social anxiety as a reason for non-attendance after lockdown.
“For some students, coming into a busy secondary school after spending so much time at home was a really daunting prospect,” she explains. “So, we really considered how we could respond to this need, and get them back into school.”
Strategies to support these students have included organising academic mentor meetings for times when there were fewer students on site, allowing phased returns and an increase in social development activities. Students spent the first few weeks of September taking part in activities that were aimed at strengthening relationships with their peers through events like an army team-building day and outdoor adventurous activities led by wellbeing teachers.
Staff were also very careful around the language used in the school: the terms “catch-up” and “Covid generation”, for example, were banned and replaced with more positive language like “let’s build on what we already know” and “master skills”.
When you look at everything the school is doing, there are clearly several intertwined interventions being used, as well as approaches that don’t fit neatly into any of the “types” assessed by the EEF review.
Whittle says that the same thing happens at Corpus Christi. There, pupil premium funding is used to employ a full-time attendance officer, who tracks every pupil’s attendance. When a child’s attendance drops below 95 per cent, parents are invited to the school for a resolution meeting with the pupil and staff. Where appropriate, the safeguarding team will join, and the reasons for non-attendance will be explored, as will reasonable adjustments.
In one meeting, for example, it was identified that non-attendance was due to anxiety around the action of physically coming into school in the morning. It was decided that the pupil would use a separate entrance and spend the first part of the day in the office with the attendance officer, calming down and preparing to go into class. This strategy worked well, Whittle says, and the pupil’s attendance is now back up to above 95 per cent.
Where there is long-term absence, these meetings can take place at home, or in another environment outside of the school. Interventions in these more serious circumstances can be wide-ranging: for example, students could have a phased return, attending just the first period for a week, before extending time in school to cover periods one and two, and so on.
Given that these two schools have had success with using combinations of approaches, is there an argument that attendance strategies could be highly effective as part of a multi-pronged approach, even when the evidence suggests that individual ones may not work in isolation?
Definitely, says Kay: schools have a large combination of attendance strategies, all with slightly different purposes.
Indeed, the review acknowledges that “crossover” exists between the categories that the approaches were divided into, and also includes an “other approaches” section, outlining “a number of additional strategies that do not fit into these categories”.
“We tried to gather together all the evidence that we could here but strategies for the persistent absence of one or two pupils might be quite different from those whole-school attendance strategies,” Kay says. “For example, incentives are much more likely to be applied at a whole-school level, whereas mentoring is much more likely to be a targeted approach.
“Typically, schools think about a number of strategies that might be applied together and which ones are appropriate.”
This doesn’t mean that the research evidence should be dismissed entirely, though, he stresses, as it can prompt thinking about what causes certain interventions to be successful or unsuccessful in particular contexts.
‘Leaders know their communities’
The new review identifies the importance of using diagnostic assessment and really understanding the needs of individual pupils: that’s a key takeaway for schools, Kay says.
Another may be around social and emotional learning (SEL), he suggests: if it’s part of your approach, and perhaps hasn’t been successful, take the time to reflect on why.
“Whole-class SEL interventions that only teach pro-social skills might not have an impact on the people that have transportation issues or those who have other reasons for not attending,” Kay explains.
He adds that “there are definitely important lessons that can be learned from the evidence base” – although, when it comes to providing schools with definitive advice, he admits the research isn’t quite there yet.
“The hope is, in a few years, we can publish evidence-based guidance that has practical implications in the classroom,” he concludes.
As things stand, though, schools can’t rely on the research. What they can do, however, is learn from each other and from best practice around the sector, says Mullholland.
“We need to value professional judgement. Leaders know their communities,” she says.
And, she adds, we need to look beyond the mainstream for ideas: “We should look to alternative provisions and special schools. Mainstream schools who are overwhelmed with a multiplicity of other issues can really tap into their expertise in those settings.”
Ultimately, the best solutions, it seems, might lie with teachers themselves, not with government policy or research evidence.
That message is unlikely to please everyone. Some would undoubtedly prefer there to be a clearer indication of which strategies schools should invest time and money into, and with budgets already tight, that is understandable.
But as far as Kay is concerned, the picture is far from hopeless. “It’s quite reassuring when the evidence is intuitive,” he says. And perhaps the message that teachers know best really shouldn’t be considered such a bad one.
Improving the attendance evidence base
There’s a clear need to find out more about how we can reduce absenteeism.
The EEF has partnered with the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) to build evidence of what works in improving attendance and reducing exclusions. Their new funding round, which opens today, will find, fund and evaluate programmes and practices in England and Wales that could both keep children safe from involvement in violence and improve academic attainment, by ensuring they attend, positively engage with and remain in school.
The two organisations are seeking applications from schools, charities or other organisations with promising initiatives that could improve attendance and reduce exclusions. They are keen to fund trials of approaches in several priority areas, including anti-bullying, social and emotional learning and targeted family engagement. Applications for funding open today and will close on 16 May 2022.
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