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The drivers behind attendance: What we are learning about the importance of belonging, engagement, sanctions and support

Written by: Ciara Sims
7 min read

You can listen to an audio version of this article above.

Ciara Sims, School Partnerships Officer, ImpactEd Group, UK

Discussions around improving attendance continue to dominate the education sector. Persistent absenteeism rates in the autumn term of 22/23 were at a record high of 24.2 per cent (Long and Danechi, 2023). There are few school leaders who don’t have attendance near the top of their priorities.

The difficulty with tackling attendance is that it is context-dependent. Initiatives that work well for one pupil or one school may not in another. In the last issue of Impact, we shared what our evidence review on attendance shows about the importance of parental involvement. In this piece, we share what live research from over 200 schools across England is telling us about other key drivers of pupil absence.

Understanding attendance: The context

At ImpactEd Evaluation, we work with schools to help them to understand what’s working well in their context, and to ensure that initiatives are having a demonstrable impact on pupil outcomes. The Understanding Attendance project (https://lp.impacted.org.uk/attendance-diagnostic), launched in the spring term 22/23, helps schools to understand the drivers behind low attendance in their setting and why these attendance patterns are happening, and to trial interventions and strategies that are specific to their own contexts and pupil needs.

ImpactEd Evaluation’s research team has developed a core set of social and emotional measures that have been shown to be reliable predictors of attendance. For example, the ‘sense of school membership’ tool measures pupils’ sense of community and belonging in school and is correlated with high attendance and motivation (Goodenow, 1993). Most of the measures that we use are in the form of pupil self-report surveys on a Likert scale, requiring pupils to select how strongly they agree or disagree with each statement, from 1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree. As these tools have been validated, they tend to be stable over time and have been shown to correlate with educational outcomes.

Every school participating in Understanding Attendance deploys these tools to drill into the factors behind attendance in their setting, and the project is facilitated by our School Impact Platform, where pupils submit their survey responses. The platform provides live analysis on pupil responses, comparison to national and contextual benchmarks, and breakdowns by year and demographic groups. Schools are encouraged to administer the surveys with all pupils in order to generate a wide representation across the school. Schools then receive an additional report demonstrating which measures are most closely correlated with pupil attendance for that school.

With over 200 schools participating in this project already, some key trends are beginning to emerge. Our sample size consists of majority secondary schools (56 per cent), and our schools contain a higher proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals – an average of 30 per cent compared to the national average of 24 per cent.

Emerging findings: Pupils need to feel that they belong

A key finding from the Understanding Attendance project is that pupils’ sense of belonging at school has a statistically significant impact on their attendance rates. Pupils with the highest attendance rates had sense of school membership scores that were six per cent above those considered to be persistently absent. Prior research has demonstrated that a strong sense of school belonging is linked to increased student motivation, reductions in absenteeism and improved academic achievement (Riley et al., 2020). We can see how a cyclical pattern emerges, where pupils’ sense of belonging is hampered by their attendance rates and vice versa. Our data shows that this is particularly the case for pupils eligible for pupil premium, whose sense of belonging scores are three per cent below their non-pupil premium peers. Indeed, children from disadvantaged communities are twice as likely as their more advantaged peers to feel that they don’t belong and four times more likely to be excluded (Riley et al., 2020).

A particular area of focus for many schools who are aiming to boost their pupils’ sense of belonging is teacher–student relationships. A recent UCL study found that the most significant factor for pupils’ sense of belonging is how they perceive their relationships with their teachers (Riley et al., 2020). Question-level analysis of our data shows a particularly strong correlation between pupils’ responses to the statement ‘Teachers and other adults help me to feel safe in this school’ and their attendance rates, especially for female pupil premium pupils. In an article for TES, Kathryn Riley suggests that a collaborative approach between pupils and teachers can ensure that everyone is focused on the same goal. She suggests activities such as mapping out the school to identify areas where both pupils and teachers feel safe and less safe, to create mutual understanding and a sense of alignment (Tes Magazine Leadership Forum, 2023). In the same article, Chris Edwards, Headteacher at Brighton Hill Community School, discusses the importance of student voice to encourage pupil involvement in a positive school culture. He emphasises that schools have to be laser-focused on cultivating this culture: ‘If we don’t give them something positive to belong to, they will find something negative to belong to.’ (Tes Magazine Leadership Forum, 2023)

Emerging findings: School engagement at Key Stage 4

The school engagement tool that we use in the project measures pupils’ cognitive, behavioural and social engagement with school. Pupils with higher school engagement rates show greater levels of resilience and are less likely to drop out of school or engage in risky behaviours (Wang and Fredericks, 2014). What we see from our data is that for pupils in Years 9, 10 and 11, the correlation between school engagement and attendance is considerably higher than for the younger year groups. Comments from schools experiencing this trend suggest that this could be linked to the increased workload and stress as pupils approach their GCSEs. There is some evidence that strategies to improve self-efficacy and reduce test anxiety could help (Krispenz et al., 2019).

School engagement, alongside sense of belonging and actual attendance rates, increases in Year 12 and Year 13. Evidence from conversations that we’ve had with schools suggests that this may be because these pupils typically have more choice in what they are learning. While schools will always be constrained by the curriculum, they may wish to investigate where they can offer younger pupils more choice in what they are learning about, to increase school engagement, sense of belonging and attendance.

Emerging findings: Wellbeing and SEND

National datasets show that pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) have lower attendance rates compared to pupils without SEND. Our findings suggest that wellbeing is a key factor here, with a statistically significant correlation between pupils with SEND who have low wellbeing and low attendance rates. This corroborates research showing that pupils with SEND struggle more with their wellbeing than non-SEND pupils, with one study reporting that one in five pupils with SEND reported feeling unhappy at school (Barnes and Harrison, 2017).

The data that we have collected so far this academic year shows that pupils with SEND have wellbeing levels that are 3.5 per cent below their non-SEND peers. It is possible that we are still experiencing the impact of the pandemic here, with several studies suggesting that children with SEND were more likely than their peers to experience worsened mental health during and after lockdown (Pearcey et al., 2023). Mentally Healthy Schools England (nd) has suggestions of interventions to improve wellbeing for pupils with additional needs, and these interventions should be evaluated to ensure that the desired outcomes are reached.

Emerging findings: Support over sanctions

One of the measures used in this study looks at the extent to which both parents and pupils understand and value the importance of attendance, and the consistency with which attendance policies and practices are shared and upheld in their schools. Encouragingly, both parents and pupils score highly for the statement ‘I think missing school too much could affect my (/my child’s) grades’, with an average of 3.7 out of 5 for pupils, where 1 represents ‘strongly disagree’ and 5 is ‘strongly agree’, and 4.5 out of 5 for parents/guardians.

Interestingly, both groups scored similarly when responding to statements around rewards and punishments. ‘There are consequences if I (/my child) skip(s) lessons’ scored 4.4 out of 5 for pupils, and this was consistent across all pupil demographics and attendance groups. Similarly, parents rated this statement at 4.2 out of 5. However, when responding to the statement ‘Students in my (/my child’s) school get rewarded for good attendance’, pupils scored 3.6 out of 5, and parents/guardians averaged 3.8 out of 5. This suggests that schools are consistent with giving consequences for not attending but less consistent in providing positive reinforcement to those with high or improved attendance.

Qualitative comments from the measures pick up on a sense of injustice around the rewards and punishments systems, with one pupil sharing ‘If I’m going to get a detention for being late when it’s not my fault, why should I go in?’, and parents commenting that they feel obligated to send their child into school even when they are unwell, due to fear of consequences from the school. Ultimately, there is a huge amount of research into the benefits and drawbacks of rewards and sanctions in school, and schools vary in their approaches, but consistent and clear systems could help to ease ambiguity and improve parent–school relationships.

Next steps

We are expanding the Understanding Attendance project to reach more schools who want better evidence on how to understand and improve attendance in their setting, and will share findings on an ongoing basis. If you would be interested in joining the project, please get in touch at www.impacted.org.uk.

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