Attendance: Where do primary schools stand?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Managing attendance has been one of the trickiest issues of the pandemic as schools struggle to balance the health concerns of a nation with the need to educate our children. What problems do we still face and what lies ahead?

Over the past 22 months those responsible for attendance in schools have had to react to rapidly changing government guidance. It has been a stressful and unrewarding job trying to get pupils into school, safeguarding those at risk, and acknowledging health concerns.

Many families have struggled and emotionally based school avoidance seems to be an issue of increasing concern (Headteacher Update, 2021a).

However, lockdown and Covid measures have also provided the ideal excuse for those reluctant to engage in the school run for whatever reason. It goes without saying that attendance at school is one of the main methods of safeguarding children at risk.

So, what are the main issues that attendance officers continue to face and how might we be able to respond in the months ahead?

Guidance overload

Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of following attendance protocol under Covid has been working out what it is in the first place. The rules around self-isolation and testing and when to return have been ever-changing and hard to interpret at times.

The DfE’s attendance guidance was first updated in light of the Covid outbreak in April 2020. It has been updated 10 times since (DfE, 2021).

Producing the daily attendance return (which was put in place to feed into the Department for Education’s Covid attendance figures) has been a tedious task but it did enable a better picture to emerge of who was in school and who was expected to be in school, and more detailed information was subsequently available to local authorities.

However, for some attendance officers, this was one obligation too many and too often. Victoria Franklin, an education consultant specialising in attendance, explained: “Attendance officers haven’t always been able to fulfil the DfE’s requirement and have had to prioritise following up unknown absence and supporting parents and children arriving at school in crisis, over this requirement.”

For schools struggling to keep up with their daily DfE return, Ms Franklin suggests adopting a timetabled approach to their work in the same way as a teaching member of staff would have a schedule to follow.

Following up absentees

Addressing issues of persistent absence has always been difficult but never more so when another reason for not being in school is available. Schools have continued to follow up absences that cause concern and, in the end, the decision to authorise or not is down to the head, with schools able to request supporting evidence from the family for an absence.

The government is focusing on persistent absence and it forms a key part of its additional guidance, Improving school attendance (DfE, 2021). Ms Franklin continued: “It might be worth considering allocating persistent absentees to a designated person. Perhaps using an early screening tool to identify factors that lead to a child being more likely to become a persistent absentee to prevent this from happening.”

She suggests approaches such as Supporting Families – formerly known as the Troubled Families initiative. The latest phase of the rebranded programme is running until March 2022. The initiative tackles a wide range of challenges including preventing children going into care or dropping out of school (Headteacher Update, 2021b; HM Government, 2021).

Parental health

In some cases attendance has dropped due to wider health issues within the family. Non-attendance due to a parent’s health problem is not authorisable under the guidance and failure to ensure a child’s attendance at school is a criminal offence.

However, schools are likely to feel a great deal of sympathy with the situations that families have found themselves in during the pandemic and any consequent difficulties maintaining regular attendance.

Not knowing how to help a family is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the type of work that we do. Signposting to services can help, but services themselves have reached capacity and the problem can seem to bounce around the system, often coming back to attendance officers.

Home education

How much pressure do you place on families to ensure their child comes to school when, in the end, they can opt for home education? The latest Association of Directors of Children’s Services survey of local authorities suggests that the number of home-schooled pupils in England has risen by 38 per cent to 75,668 as of October 2020 – and the numbers would appear still to be rising (ADCS, 2020).

There is concern that the choice to home educate is often not a positive one for some parents – with stories of families feeling pressured into taking this step – and as such may not be in the best long-term interests of the child.

The good news is that there is now an expectation that there is a pre-decision meeting prior to a parent removing their child from school. This meeting is not to prevent them from choosing home education but to support them in making an informed decision (Headteacher Update, 2021c).


Ofsted may be back but inspectors are not equipped with the same level of data as they usually would be. Attendance between March 2020 and March 2021 will not impact on the judgement. Instead inspectors will consider the specific context and the steps taken by school leaders to ensure the best possible rates of attendance.

However, schools will still need to demonstrate that they are challenging their persistent absentees and keeping a close eye on attendance patterns and rates of attendance. Attendance and punctuality feature in the “behaviour and attitudes” judgement, which states that we need “high expectations of pupils, on attendance and punctuality”.

Revisit your attendance policy and refresh it. Make sure that it is applied consistently and fairly across your school and that there are clearly defined consequences. At the same time, your staff should show that they know and care about pupils and that pupil motivation and positive attitudes are encouraged as a priority.

Changing practice

Attendance may be a difficult area at the moment, but there have been some moments of inspiration that have come from reconsidering traditional ways of doing things and looking for new solutions.

For example, many schools have developed new ways of communicating with parents that remain in use. Less formal communication channels mean that it is easier to “nudge” parents when a problem is emerging, rather than sending a formal request. The option of using Zoom or Teams to meet up has also added flexibility to how we can respond quickly.

Collaboration with some families will have improved during the past year. Some schools have found themselves having to work more closely with some of their least communicative families. For example, helping them to establish home learning or supporting them with basic needs such as food and clothing. In some cases this has opened doors, but in other cases doors have shut as some families have simply struggled to cope.

The links that staff have made with different services and charities will continue to be crucial.

Primary schools are reporting an emphasis on pupil wellbeing and welfare, a focus that goes hand-in-hand with the efforts of the attendance officer. Finding ways to engage pupils, extra activities that they enjoy, ways to support socialising and developing relationships are all key to this.

We should feel hopeful that as winter recedes, a more consistent educational environment will be possible. As such, it could be the time to give attendance a new breath of life. Rather than focusing on absence it could be beneficial to give attendance a positive push – perhaps giving it priority on your website or re-issuing your policy. 

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