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The drivers behind attendance: How understanding parental engagement can be used to support attendance at school

Written by: Harriet Ratty
5 min read
Harriet Ratty, Partnerships Support Coordinator, ImpactEd, UK

The percentage of students persistently missing school in the 2021/22 academic year was considerably higher than pre-pandemic in 2018/19, at 22.5 per cent compared to 10.9 per cent (DfE, 2023). These numbers have since risen.

At ImpactEd, we support schools to measure the impact of their initiatives so that they can focus on what is working best. In response to the national challenge with attendance, we have recently launched a large-scale research project – Understanding Attendance – helping schools to track the barriers to attendance at school. In this piece, we share some of the literature that informed this project and the importance of understanding the drivers behind attendance, with a particular focus on parental engagement with a view to improving pupil attendance.

Why does this matter?

The research is clear that all settings have struggled to maintain attendance rates since COVID. In autumn 2021, Ofsted found that a fifth of schools inspected were experiencing more attendance issues than usual, with post-pandemic social anxiety and families finding it hard to move on from the bubble-isolation mentality (Ofsted, 2022). Moreover, with 27.7 per cent of secondary school students and 17.1 per cent of primary school students identified as persistently absent across the 2021/22 academic year (DfE, 2023), we know that addressing the underlying drivers of student absence is a focus for many schools.

It is well known that poor school attendance is linked with poor academic attainment and poor social engagement, while improvements in attendance, however small, can lead to positive effects for these outcomes (DfE, 2016; Gottfried, 2014; Freeman et al., 2019).

Interventions for attendance

A recent systematic review by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2022) summarised the findings of 72 impact evaluations that included interventions aimed at increasing school attendance. Those interventions found to be successful in improving attendance rates in schools included listening to students and discussing their concerns one to one, ensuring that students feel safe in school (feeling supported by a trusted adult; feeling physically safe during lessons, breaktimes and on the journey to and from school; getting along with others and knowing what to do in cases of bullying), improving student wellbeing, and teaching soft skills such as grit and goal orientation. Some of the most promising interventions focus on effective communication with parents. However, the overall quality of evidence was deemed weak, with few taking place in UK schools and small sample sizes. The EEF concludes that a range of interventions tailored to students’ individual needs is required in order to improve attendance rate.

Parental engagement as a driver of attendance 

It is important for schools to understand attendance data in their context and be confident in analysing it to spot trends of poor attendance early and identify groups of students, or individual students, for whom an action plan or intervention can be tailored.

As part of the launch of our national Understanding Attendance project, we particularly wanted to consider the role of parental engagement in their child’s learning and education. Evidence suggests that increasing engagement among the community of parents and carers is linked with better school attendance, as well as other benefits, including improved academic achievement and more positive classroom behaviour (Goodall 2017; McConnell and Kubina 2014). Moreover, a lack of effective engagement between parents and their child’s school was reported to be a cause of many cases of poor attendance referred to education welfare officers (Mellish, 2019). Lack of contact may be through parents not reaching out to their school to seek support for their child’s absence, or due to them not being aware of their schools expectations initially (Hornby and Blackwell, 2018).

The EEF’s review (2022) reports that the most promising interventions aimed at targeting cases of low attendance increased parental engagement through effective communication. Communication regarding the importance of attendance and specific information about the childs attendance history, as well as targeted parental engagement interventions that help specific students to overcome attendance barriers, were shown to be effective in improving attendance rates. For instance, Hurwitz et al. (2015) found that well-designed communications via text message had particularly positive effects on increasing engagement among fathers. Similarly, engaging parents in activities at school aimed at improving parent social networks had a positive impact on involvement and lessened the disconnect between parents and their child’s school (Curry and Hotler, 2019).

While the impacts of such approaches may not be sufficient on their own to support children with greater needs, supporting parental engagement and gaining an understanding of parents’ perceptions of attendance will help schools to embed a culture of effective communication and transparency around attendance (Axford et al., 2019).

Understanding attendance in your setting

For any school looking to understand the drivers of attendance, understanding the motivations of parents and students in their community is key. These are likely to be interrelated with other factors. For example, feeling safe at school was found to be a useful tool for exploring school belonging, as well as a key driver of low attendance (Porter et al., 2021). 

While schools will often design their own surveys to assess these questions, we would recommend using existing tools that have been formally validated, to avoid gathering potentially misleading responses. Potential sources that schools could consider include:

  • Sense of safety in school: Feeling part of the school and feeling safe: Further development of a tool for investigating school belonging’ by Porter et al. (2021)
  • Anxiety:A brief measure for assessing generalised anxiety disorder: The GAD-7’ by Spitzer et al. (2006)
  • Grit: Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GRIT–S)’ by Duckworth and Quinn (2009).

 

Questions that schools may wish to consider asking of students, derived from the wider literature (Blevins, 2009; Malcolm et al., 2003) include:

  • whether teachers care when they miss school
  • whether their parents/carers care when they miss school
  • whether there are consequences if they skip lessons
  • whether they know the reasons why they are allowed to miss school and the reasons why they are not.

 

Questions that schools could consider asking of parents include:

  • whether their absence policy is clearly communicated
  • whether the parent finds it difficult to get their child to go to school
  • whether there are appropriate consequences for when a child is absent without a valid reason
  • whether they feel that the school is concerned when their child misses school.

 

Analysing this data should help to provide more in-depth understanding of the factors that might be influencing attendance in your setting, and the best approaches to support parents and families. Crucially, gathering perspectives beyond just attendance data can help to highlight students that may benefit from additional support but do not hit the threshold of persistent absence.

For further information on the Understanding Attendance project and to get involved, visit www.impacted.org.uk. Findings on effective interventions will continue to be released in future issues of Impact.

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