Persistent absence: What can schools do?

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

One in 10 pupils are considered to fall into the category of being persistently absent, meaning they miss 10 per cent or more of school sessions. So why do these pupils continue to stay away and what can schools do about it?

Being frequently absent from school is not only likely to affect achievement but is also an indicator that there may be other difficulties, either at home or at school, that need to be urgently addressed. Vulnerable and disadvantaged children are particularly at risk of becoming persistent absentees.

The persistent absence rate for those eligible for free school meals (FSM) is 21.6 per cent – more than twice the rate for those pupils not eligible for FSM. Also the persistent absence rate of those with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or Statement of SEN (24.3 per cent) is three times the figure for those with no identified SEN (DfE, 2019).

Why pupils don’t attend

Children can fall into the “persistently absent” category for many different reasons. Investigating what these are and addressing them as soon as possible should be a very important part of any school’s attendance policy.

In some cases a dip in attendance will be linked to a particular medical complaint. The child may have a number of appointments or spend time in hospital for medical treatment. Not only is attendance affected while the child is ill but it can be difficult for them to reintegrate back into the school environment.

Other persistently absent pupils may be experiencing difficulties at school. Perhaps there are problems with the level of work and they are struggling to access the curriculum. Issues to do with relationships can be the source of the reluctance and pupils may be experiencing bullying or friendship break-downs.

For some pupils, these problems can turn into a school phobia that can be very difficult to reverse. There may be attachment issues and high levels of anxiety. Children with autism are particularly vulnerable, finding the school environment challenging and regular attendance difficult to maintain.

For some, low attendance is clearly linked to issues at home. Some children have a parent who is dependent on them in some way. They might be a carer themselves or are concerned about a parent with substance abuse or who is a victim of domestic violence. In these cases, the child can be reluctant to leave them for long periods of time.

Financial difficulties can cause some practical problems with families struggling to pay for transport or to provide clean uniform, school equipment and other resources. Non-attendance can become preferable to arriving ill-equipped and in trouble.

Ofsted and absence

The way that the new Ofsted reports are framed makes it clear that good attendance is linked to a rich and relevant curriculum and children wanting to be in class. Inspections will report on attendance from a pupil’s point of view, asking: “What is it like to attend this school?”

When evaluating behaviour and attitudes, inspectors will be: “Analysing absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups compared with national averages for all pupils; this includes the extent to which low attenders are improving their attendance over time and whether attendance is consistently low.” (Paragraph 213, School Inspection Handbook)

Absence is one of the aspects covered in the Inspection Data Summary Report (IDSR) which supports the new inspection arrangements. It is possible that a high level of persistent absence could show up in the IDSR as an area for further investigation.

Schools are asked to produce an up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils. This will be particularly important if the school’s attendance has been flagged up as an issue. The analysis should be set in the context of the school’s aims and the characteristics of its pupils.

Schools will want to show that they are aware of any persistent absence issues and that they are being proactive in addressing them for all their pupils as well as for particular groups.

Strategies for schools?

Of course, the strategies schools choose will depend upon the reason for absence. It is important to unpick the issues and adopt a personalised approach. There should be a clear recording system and a way of monitoring the success, or not, of what has been tried.

Many schools send out a break-down of how detrimental absence can be and how it adds up over the years. If a child’s attendance falls below the 90 per cent guideline for persistent absence then this equates to 20 days absence from school, which potentially is 80 lessons missed. Parents may not be aware of the cumulative affect of the absence.

Attendance incentives are less likely to work with this group of pupils. In many cases the persistent absence will have developed over time and the habit will be ingrained. There are likely to be firm reasons why their absence has slipped to this level and offering a certificate to improve it is only likely to work in a few cases.

Medical issues

If there are medical issues then you will need to be kept informed about what these are and how you can support as a school. You will need parental consent to access medical information and will need details of the relevant professionals involved. There may be special arrangements in the local area for children who are unable to attend school for health reasons and you should work in collaboration with your school nurse.

Where mental health issues are evident or there are other medical concerns then the GP should be involved and parents can ask for a referral to a paediatrician. The pupil must have an individual healthcare plan which records responsibilities and what support will be provided.

School phobia

A child with school phobia may be suffering from anxiety. It is important to establish a routine that they can adopt. Are there features of the way that children arrive at school that can be managed better for this child? Would they prefer to come directly into the classroom, for example? It is worth considering Monday morning in particular, as this can be a difficult time for anxious children. You might want to arrange an adult to greet the child and be available during the school day. Providing a key worker who can maintain communication with the family is ideal.

Difficulties at home

For many pupils the issues are complex and intertwined with what is happening in the family. This is where a more holistic approach may be needed involving different services. Domestic violence, a parent with mental health or physical needs, a relative in prison, caring duties or safeguarding issues such as neglect, can impact on attendance.

There should be a written action plan shared with parents, pupils and the relevant members of staff. It is likely that your strategies will be personalised ones and may require a flexible interpretation of some of your policies. For example, a child who is anxious about a parent at home may need to be able to access their mobile at intervals during the school day, even if your policy usually prohibits this.

Parents and pupils need to feel listened to rather than talked at. It is important not to be judgmental. A home visit can provide another perspective and demonstrates the school’s willingness to involve the family. Look closely at the issues they face and work out a stepped approach to deal with them.


Primary schools know how important their work with parents is, but perhaps never more so than when it comes to school attendance and punctuality. The main message must be that both parents and school want what is best for the child and it is finding a way to ensure this that is paramount. 

Further information

DfE: Pupil absence in schools in England: Autumn 2018 and spring 2019, October 2019:

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