Working together on school attendance

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

Attendance still isn’t back on track for many schools and new guidance is kicking in this term, putting this issue firmly at the top of the agenda. Suzanne O'Connell asks what school leaders and attendance leads should be focused on this year.

School leaders have long-recognised poor attendance as a potential indicator of other problems, particularly safeguarding issues.

Unfortunately, this awareness has not always been reflected in the approach taken by other services. Until now, school attendance was often considered to be an issue for schools and schools alone. But the tide is turning.

A report from the children’s commissioner for England (2022) warns us that in autumn 2021 one in four children were persistently absent from school compared to one in nine in 2018/19 (pre-pandemic).

Attendance has suddenly become urgent and with it the acceptance that absence is often an indicator of other problems that must be tackled first if attendance is to be improved.

These “blockers” or barriers do not always rest within the remit of school and new government guidance – Working together to improve school attendance (DfE, 2022a; Headteacher Update, 2022a) – reflects the need for partners to work together to provide the support to bring children back to class.

The new guidance applies in non-statutory form from this term but is expected to become statutory from September 2023. It is split into eight sections with section 2 identifying the expectations for schools. It is likely that most schools will already be implementing the majority of the requirements and will simply need to tweak rather than overhaul current practices. The DfE expects schools to:

  • Develop and maintain a culture of high attendance.
  • Have an attendance policy which is understood by all.
  • Have admissions and attendance registers that are accurately completed.
  • Have effective day-to-day processes to follow up absence.
  • Regularly monitor and analyse attendance and absence data, putting effective strategies into place.
  • Build strong relationships with families, identifying barriers and helping to remove them.
  • Share information and work collaboratively with local schools, local authorities and partners where absence is at risk of becoming persistent or severe.

A useful tool is the accompanying document, Summary table of responsibilities for school attendance (DfE, 2022a) which can be used as a checklist to review your current practice and might be divided into sections for discussion.

Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022: This article was our cover feature in the Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022, which published earlier this month. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

Working together

“Working together” is the main message of the guidance. Getting our students back into school and attending regularly is a big job and needs everyone to be playing their part.

Really, this has always been the case. Attendance should always have been a shared responsibility across the school and between agencies but unfortunately it was not always given the priority that it deserved.

Now there is no ducking from the fact that without a concerted multi-service, whole-school drive there is unlikely to be an automatic bounce-back to pre-pandemic levels.

In section 1 of the guidance the DfE provides a flowchart of the process that partners are expected to follow: Expect – monitor – listen and understand – facilitate support – formalise support – enforce.

The emphasis is on removing barriers and working with families and partner services with enforcement coming as the final part of the strategy when “all other avenues have been exhausted”.

The link between attendance and safeguarding is clear and should give headteachers the voice that they haven’t always had: “If all avenues of support have been facilitated by schools, local authorities and other partners, and appropriate educational support has been provided but severe absence for unauthorised reasons continues, it is likely to constitute neglect.

“Schools and local authorities should be especially conscious of potential safeguarding issues in these cases and where these remain, conduct a full children’s social care assessment.”

The attendance policy

It might have come as a surprise to some headteachers that there was any need in the Schools Bill to introduce a requirement to have an attendance policy. Surely all schools already count this as one of their key documents.

However, it is a good time for schools to take a look at theirs and review it to ensure it includes the expected information:

  • Start and end times of the school day, including register closing times.
  • The name and contact details of the strategic lead for school attendance (must be SLT).
  • The point at which fixed penalty notices and other sanctions are sought.

Along with details of the school’s procedures for:

  • How parents inform the school of an absence or apply for leave of absence.
  • Managing attendance (such as following up an absence).
  • Promoting school attendance.
  • Reducing persistent and severe absence.
  • Using data to target attendance improvements.

Your policy should also include sections on:

  • SEND children and those with medical needs.
  • Children missing education.
  • Exclusions and alternative provision.
  • Safeguarding.

It is important that your policy is accessible and clearly understood. It should feature on your school website and every parent should be aware of it when their child joins the school. Any amendments should be communicated in a timely way and reminders given of key aspects of the policy at the beginning of each school year.

It is worth noting that praising and rewarding students for attendance should be done “sensitively and without discrimination”.

Attendance champion

All schools are expected to have a champion for attendance in their senior leadership team. Their role includes:

  • Offering a clear vision for attendance improvement.
  • Evaluating and monitoring expectations and processes.
  • Oversight of data analysis.
  • Communicating messages to pupils and parents.

The clarification of what is expected from different members of staff is crucial, including the balance between the voice of the attendance lead, their champion, and link governor. You will want to find a system which ensures that having more people involved doesn’t mean more time-consuming paperwork for anyone.

What’s next?

Changes could follow the consultation School registers and national thresholds for legal intervention (DfE, 2022b; Headteacher Update, 2022b). It has long been a contentious area, as local authorities in different parts of the country have applied different approaches to legal interventions, specifically fixed penalty notices. A more consistent, national code of conduct may be welcome.

Elsewhere, draft School Attendance Regulations are already available and due to come into force in September 2023.

Meanwhile, the DfE is embarking on a three-year attendance mentoring pilot, starting this term in Middlesbrough. And a new “attendance data visualisation tool” will be launched for use by local authorities and schools and as part of a national attendance data dashboard. This is expected later this term and is aimed at giving schools and others useful insights of daily, weekly and termly trends (Headteacher Update, 2022a).

Will all this make a difference? Well, schools should at least now feel empowered to turn around and point out that attendance is everyone’s business.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former headteacher.

Further information & resources

  • Children’s Commissioner: Back into school: New insights into school absence, July 2022:
  • DfE: Guidance: Working together to improve school attendance & Summary table of responsibilities for school attendance, May 2022:
  • DfE: School registers and national thresholds for legal intervention (consultation closed), June 2022b:
  • HM Government: School Attendance Regulations 2023:
  • Headteacher Update: Attendance guidance kicks in as DfE unveils new data toolkit, September 2022a:
  • Headteacher Update: Attendance: Proposed new thresholds look set to increase parental fines, June 2022b:

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