Attendance at school

As long as there have been schools, there have been children and young people who do not attend regularly, attend infrequently, or do not attend at all. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but fall broadly into four main areas: socio-economic, people, the curriculum and additional needs. These overlap and relate primarily to unmet needs. National emphases wax and wane, but a common factor is usually the child’s experience of school and limited resources to meet children’s needs.


One basic socio-economic reason for absence can be a lack of suitable clothes to wear, with key pieces of uniform lost, dirty or torn and disagreements with school about footwear. Many schools recognise this and provide free uniforms for pupil premium pupils and new starters, and operate uniform exchange. They also reduce the need for too many logos. Increasingly, they appreciate the cost of children’s footwear and that some children will only have one pair of shoes worn for all occasions. Many children come to school hungry, and the provision of free breakfasts and free lunches has encouraged attendance and punctuality, as has buying alarm clocks for some families. During the pandemic, many headteachers and school staff delivered IT equipment, food and sanitary products to children’s homes and provided internet access. These for many sustained engagement, even though it was from a distance. Key is to eliminate the stigma that young people may feel from having to wear second-hand clothes, not having a great phone and needing free food. Economic factors also influence holidays or extended leave during term time, as this is the only way that many can afford a holiday or to visit family abroad at all. There are also some young people who carry huge responsibilities as carers for their parents or siblings, who may have medical needs, disabilities, and limiting physical or mental health. For the young person, meeting these needs may well overtake the priorities of punctuality and attendance at school.


Some children and young people too are absent due to fear of people they may encounter on the way to school or once they arrive. There have always been bullies who lurk around corners and give verbal and physical harassment and victims too afraid to tell anyone. There is the added problem now of having to come face-to-face with cyber bullies. Once at school, there are the fears of being told off for being late, (so in the child’s mind it may be better not to come at all and to feign illness), or because of not having done the homework, or having produced work which is untidy, of poor quality or incomplete. For some young people too, schools are loud, crowded and confusing places, which brings the fear of being trapped in the crowd, or of how they may be treated when they are not in the right place at the right time.


There are also young people uninspired by the curriculum or by its delivery. Consequently, they find other things to do rather than to engage in the lesson. This might involve finding other places to be within school or by not attending at all. Sometimes, this is because the work is too hard, or not challenging enough, and does not capture their interest. Some will avoid attending when there are tests or exams, or because of certain lessons. PE can be a problem due to changing and not having the right clean kit or feeling shamed about the cleanliness, shape and size of their bodies or bearing the bruises and scars of abuse.

Additional needs

The fourth set of reasons relates to additional or special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). These may overlap with any or all of the factors described above. For some with SEND, there may be a succession of illnesses and medical appointments and the sheer exhaustion of spending a whole day in school. Others with autism may struggle with the bewildering sensory environment or with getting out of the house for the journey to school. Disrupted sleep patterns may also militate against regular attendance.

Good intentions

A flurry of activity in the first ten years of this century, brought initiatives with good intentions to change children’s lives for the better. These include children’s centres, many of which provided a safe space for young children and their families to play and learn and to receive help from different services and volunteers. Some families remained hard to reach but for others, the centres alleviated poverty, safeguarded children, instilled good habits and attitudes to education, and sometimes, actually saved lives. The ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda focused on the whole child and on all agencies working together. Again, this did not reach everyone, but it did prioritise children’s well-being. Similarly, the behaviour and attendance strand of the National Strategies was effective in reducing many persistent absences. The focus on attendance had a positive effect for a number of years but was gradually eroded by a new political and economic emphasis and exacerbated further by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Children’s Commissioner: Voices of England’s Missing Children: Attendance Audit, June 2022, undertook a survey of 550,000 children, followed by ‘deep dives’ into attendance in 10 local authorities. This confirmed that many children were happy to be back at school following the pandemic. Nevertheless, absence, persistent absence and dropping out had doubled since 2018-19 and involved 1.7 million children. Subsequently, the commissioner identifies six ambitions to improve attendance, with the rather optimistic aim of securing 100% attendance at school on the first day of term in September.


The first ambition though is entirely feasible and all schools and those who work with children can address it. Indeed, many already are. This is to ask, listen and communicate and make decisions alongside children, families and other adults. This includes schools making attendance a priority along with the quality of education, reading and writing, and making sure that language and relationships are supportive. The second is equally positive and involves meeting children’s needs through support in school and through families of schools. Such support includes early help for mental health, SEND, bullying and safeguarding and the development of on-site alternative provision. The report also refers to the ambition of using exclusion as a trigger for intervention, with targeted support after removal from the classroom, internal suspension, suspension, exclusion, managed moves and part-time timetables. It would be difficult to disagree with any of this, but it is not cost-neutral.

The fourth ambition is to let children be children so that they do not feel they need to stay away to care for others. This includes the consistent identification of young carers and targeted support for them.

The fifth and sixth ambitions will be harder to realise as they involve everyone working together and improved data systems. These are no doubt what is needed, but they are likely to be very costly to already over-stretched and under-resourced local authorities, schools and social care and health services. However, we can all listen to what young people are saying and respond by making school a happier and more supportive place for those who find it difficult to attend.


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