Tackling persistent absenteeism in 2024

Rose Webb
Friday, January 12, 2024

The new year is usually a fresh start but for many professionals who work with children and young people the challenges they face in 2024 will be very familiar.

Webb: 'The reasons behind attendance problems are complex and multi-faceted'.
Webb: 'The reasons behind attendance problems are complex and multi-faceted'.

Attendance issues in our schools – exacerbated by the pandemic – is one of the most stubborn. It is why the Department for Education this week unveiled plans to tackle school non attendance.

The statistics are startling. The persistent absence rate in England’s schools was 22 per cent in 2022/23. More than 125,000 pupils – the equivalent of 445 primary schools ­– were severely absent in autumn 2022. That’s more than double the number of so-called ‘ghost pupils’ than in autumn 2020.

The rates for vulnerable pupils are even worse, with attendance rates for pupils eligible for free school meals 3.4 times higher.

The implications are immense. The detriment to learning is of course hugely important but it is just one factor. The impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing is as great and, perhaps, the most problematic.

One in 10 severely absent pupils had an identified social, emotional and mental health need, while 20 per cent of pupils that are severely absent are on special educational needs (SEN) support, even though they make up just 12 per cent of the student population.

Silver bullets aren’t of much use here – the reasons behind attendance problems are complex and multi-faceted. We know that disengagement from school may be due to learning difficulties, social factors such as families in crisis without access to support, neurodiversity or unmet, emotional or mental health needs.

From teenagers to toddlers, behaviour can communicate an unmet need – and absence can be an indicator of that. Building strong relationships and getting to know pupils well means we’ll be better equipped to remove any barriers, and to help and guide them. Time invested in building secure relationships now will in the long term reap rewards.

Deep down, we all wish to be noticed and appreciated. The challenge for us all is to find out what children and young people are interested in or passionate about and play to those strengths. Asking questions and taking time to discover something unique about each child or young person will help them feel valued. Over time, this builds trust, and cooperation. We need to hold in mind that our relationship with them may be the one thing that motivates them to get out of bed and face the day’s challenges, such as family disputes, bullying and frustration at being unable to engage in learning.

How can we turn those fundamentals into practical steps that provide a welcoming environment for children and young people, encouraging feelings of security and thereby making a significant contribution towards improving attendance rates?

A genuinely warm welcome at the school gates or for when pupils first enter the classroom is of course a given, but for pupils who are particularly struggling different approaches should be considered. This could include giving them an alternative entrance and setting aside concerns such as adherence to school uniform rules until they are inside the school building and settled.

Developing a plan for pupils who arrive late is also important. No one likes to arrive part-way through a lesson and for young people already suffering anxiety about school this can be enough to make them avoid school altogether. Provide a place where these pupils can go to settle in before joining their peers at the beginning of the next lesson. A National School Breakfast Programme-funded breakfast club could be just the incentive to get pupils on site before the school day begins.

Creating a ‘check-out moment’ at the end of the school day so that the child or young person knows what they will be doing the next day will make a difference. This is an opportunity to build anticipation, provide reassurance and, most importantly, let them know how much we are looking forward to seeing them in the morning.

Nominating a colleague to work one to one with those pupils with low attendance will help you to focus on the challenge. Provided they have the resources and time, these professionals can seek to understand the underlying factors causing absenteeism and then develop a reintegration plan with the child or young person and their family.

Improving links with local youth workers will help you to understand what is happening in pupils’ lives outside school and work with them to tackle challenges. These professionals can offer support and incentives to change any behaviour that may be contributing to school absences, such as staying out late, not getting enough sleep or not eating a nutritious diet.

And initiating open communication and early conversations with parents and carers or setting up a parents’ group to offer additional guidance and signposting, will give all a non-judgmental environment where they will feel able to express their concerns openly.

  • Rose Webb is policy, practice and innovation lead at Thrive, which trains teachers and other education professionals to support children’s wellbeing.
  • Thrive has developed a new attendance guide which is available here

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