Four ideas to ensure high school attendance

Written by: Paul K Ainsworth | Published:
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School attendance is a priority for all schools. No matter what your context, it is vital that you do not leave attendance to chance. Paul K Ainsworth considers four ideas to try and ensure high attendance

In the past, increasing pupil attendance may have been seen as the Cinderella of school improvement.

Thinking back to the early examples I observed of school improvement, my first experiences were of the use of behaviour systems. Then we moved on to how to develop teaching and learning, before finely honing systems to squeeze that last drop of attainment and hence progress for our pupils.

Attendance was often an after-thought and not given the attention by senior leaders that it required.

It is so very different today. We all recognise that the first pre-requisite to learning is pupils being in the classroom. Hence many schools are developing a wide range of systems and techniques which encourage pupils to attend school.

There is a clear focus on attendance by the Department for Education (DfE) with the publication of weekly attendance figures. The children’s commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza has also warned the government that even with attendance figures increasing from last year, the issue of poor attendance and persistent absence has not got away.

All this comes after new attendance guidance kicked in this term (DfE, 2022) and the children’s commissioner warning in her recent report (2022) that in autumn 2021, one in four children were persistently absent from school – compared to one in nine in 2018/19 (pre-pandemic).

The latest attendance figures show us that at the end of September 2022, school absence was running at 6.1% for the year to date (4.8% in primary schools; 7.6% in secondary schools). The overall figure includes an unauthorised absence rate of 1.9% (DfE, 2022).

A never-ending challenge

The reality, of course, is that attendance is never “solved”, and we know that high attendance in any school does not happen by accident.

You may work in a context where it seems automatic that pupils come to school. Equally you may have worked in challenging environments where schools continually strive to get pupils in, often without the support of parents.

Whatever type of school you work in, it is vital that you do not leave attendance to chance but instead continually focus on this element of your provision.

Attendance has been hit significantly by the difficulties we have faced with Covid over the last two to three years, when at times there has been confusion as to whether pupils should even be in school or not.

The cost-of-living crisis has added to the problems, with a range of barriers now facing our most deprived pupils. In turn with these challenges, Ofsted appears to be ramping up its expectations of what it feels attendance should look like and what schools should be doing.

Those colleagues who have read my previous articles in Headteacher Update will remember that I have certain tactics which I apply to school improvement. I do not believe in trying to find a magic formula which will provide all the answers – there are “no silver bullets”.

Instead, I continually look for small ideas and tweaks which I can use day-in, day-out to deliver school improvement. Drawing upon some of these “actions” from my book No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement (namely actions 72, 71, 85 and 75), in this article I will highlight four ideas which you can use to try and ensure high attendance in your school.

1, Calculate attendance statistics weekly

You must ensure that for every session, mornings and afternoon, the overall attendance is calculated and shared with senior leaders.

One leader must have responsibility for ensuring that this is completed every day and that the attendance is continually compared with what happened on previous days. This must always happen.

Then on a weekly basis, the trends must be considered:

  • Which year groups have the lowest attendance?
  • Which day of the week is attendance the lowest?
  • How does the attendance of Pupil Premium children compare with their peers?
  • How does the attendance for different prior attainment groups compare?
  • What is the attendance for key marginal pupils?

This information is vital in enabling leaders to begin to take interventions to improve attendance and to consider if interventions are making a difference.

Sometimes we find that the act of leaders carefully analysing attendance and being aware of the detail of what is happening in schools can provide some improvement on its own.

2, Focus on the attendance of individual pupils

The attendance of all individuals must be carefully and accurately gathered. And it must be completed as speedily as possible.

You need to know which pupils are in school and every day – be constantly looking at how their individual attendance is changing. You need to be asking yourself questions such as:

  • Which pupils have had three days off in a row?
  • Which pupils are averaging one day off a week?
  • Which pupils are always off on a Monday?
  • Which pupils are slipping into persistent absence?

This can only be determined if you have accurate tracking of individual pupils daily.

3, Target persistent absence

The first task is analysis to make sure you have accurate lists of those pupils who are persistently absent.

Look at the pupils and see if there are patterns in their absence. Do they regularly miss a Monday or Friday? Do they miss certain lessons? If you can see such patterns, the pastoral team needs to talk to the child and see what support can be given. Dealing with absence often needs to move from punitive to support.

Next look at the pupils who are only just persistently absent: the pupils who have attendance between 85% and 90%. These are your quick wins. Calculate how many days of continuous attendance they will need so they move out of the persistently absent category. At different points of the term, the number of days will vary.

Again, using the pastoral team, work with those pupils and their parents individually and explain to them the concept of persistent absence and how this could affect them, their education, or chances later on in the world of work. Set them challenges of how many days of attendance they need to be no longer persistently absent. Then check-in with them every day to see if they are in school.

Ensure you praise them if they are in school every day. You could look at small rewards if you feel this is appropriate. This could be as simple as a written note or card saying that you are proud of them for the effort that they are making.

Once you have moved some of these pupils out of the persistently absent category, then start working with the next group of pupils and trying to move them. With this kind of forensic approach, schools can quickly make a difference.

4, Which strategies work with which pupils

When an attendance intervention is applied with an individual child, consider the impact that it has. Try not to use multiple attendance strategies at the same time so that you can easily identify what has made the difference.

Think of the basic interventions such as:

  • Attendance rewards
  • Phone call to parents
  • Letters to parents (so-called nudge letters)
  • Visiting the house
  • Attendance meetings
  • Threats of fines

Then group the action into one of the four categories:

  • Positive response from family and improved attendance.
  • Negative response from parents but still improved attendance.
  • Positive response from family but no impact on child’s attendance.
  • Negative response from family and no impact on child’s attendance.

Use this information to help personalise the actions that you take to improve the attendance of individual pupils.

There are no magic answers

These are four actions of the 22 suggestions in my book which you can use to improve attendance in your schools. More widely, there are 108 actions in the book to develop quality first teaching, raise external outcomes, and improve behaviour.

None of these actions provide magic answers. Instead, they all require consistent and determined efforts by a range of staff working together as a team and if this is applied you can make progress with the attendance of pupils at your school.

  • Paul K Ainsworth has held director of school improvement roles in four multi-academy trusts and is currently the Education Director with Infinity Academies Trust in Lincolnshire. He has supported leaders of small rural primary schools to large 11 to 18 urban secondaries, working intensively with those in Ofsted categories. He is the author of No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement and a TEDx speaker. Read his previous articles via

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