Is persistent absence the result of pupils not wanting to learn?


With persistent absence from school at an all-time high, and emotive stories in the news about alarming numbers of children ‘missing from education’, what is really going on behind the headlines? How can school leaders practically address this issue in their schools?

‘Pupil attendance in schools’ from the Department for Education (DfE) shows that in the 2022-23 academic year, the overall absence rate across all schools was 7.5%. An alarming 22.5% of absent pupils are recorded as persistently absent, almost double the pre-pandemic rate.

The breakdown of the 2022-23 absence rate figures in the DfE’s ‘Pupil attendance in schools’ is also revealing, including: 

  • 11.4% for pupils who are eligible for free school meals, compared to 6.2% for pupils who were not
  • 13.3% for pupils with an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP), 11.1% for pupils with SEND support and 6.9% with no identified SEND.

As part of the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into persistent and long-term school absence, in March 2023, Dame Rachel de Souza (Children’s Commissioner for England) identified that illness alone did not account for the persistent absence of 818,000 children during the spring of 2021-22. The pandemic was, of course, a catalyst, but also masks a complex set of reasons which have contributed to an overall tendency to break the previous connection between pupils, parents and schools. In the ‘Attendance audit’ she launched in January 2022, she maintains that many are absent not because they don’t want to learn, but because they lack the support they need to engage in education and attend school.

Ofsted’s 2022 ‘Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence’ report shares examples of successful strategies by schools. It observes that leaders in these schools ‘systematically analyse attendance information’ to spot patterns and trends and then ‘use this analysis to target their actions, both for individuals and at a whole-school level’. 

The correlation between pupils who are disadvantaged in some way, and persistent absence, seems compelling. Tackle the overt or hidden barriers to learning that are behind the absence statistics and real progress can be made.

Three schools share their reasons for enlisting the help of PASS 

PASS (The Pupil Attitudes to Self and School) is used by many schools to identify barriers to learning specifically linked to their experience at school. In a recent case study Samantha Krbacevic, Deputy Head at Repton Prep in Derby, describes their decision to adopt PASS:

“Like many schools, we have found that the mental health needs of pupils have increased particularly post-lockdown. Being able to be proactive rather than reactive and making those early interventions has been a major driver for introducing PASS. Already in our first year of rolling PASS out across the school we have spotted individuals through our data that need support with certain areas that weren’t previously flagged by other measures as being priority pupils.” 

River Tyne Academy Gateshead works with students who have either been permanently excluded from mainstream education, or been referred by another school. Many are in the care of the local authority, with 60% in receipt of Free School Meals and around 25% with SEND. In her case study, Teaching Assistant Gail Gordon explained their decision to use PASS with their Year 7-11 students:

“By using the information from the PASS reports to build a bigger picture of our students, we could then put interventions in place to help reconnect them with the learning that they have missed. We used PASS Interventions to provide strategies for the students to use both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Gail concludes: “PASS has helped our school in a massive way, as we are able to demonstrate to the teaching staff where their students’ attitudes currently sit and identify what we need to do as a team to make their learning experience as positive as possible.” 

Ysgol Emmanuel primary school in Rhyl uses PASS three times a year to help identify pupils requiring support with wellbeing and attendance. In her case study, Deputy Headteacher Linda Coleman describes how PASS helped when they identified a problem with some older pupils being absent from school to play computer games: 

“When these pupils have taken PASS, their results have flagged green as they actually like being at school. PASS has given us a tool that we can use to demonstrate to their parents that the reason for their absence is an external factor that they will need to support us with.”

The PASS factors: Feelings About School, Perceived Learning Capability, Learner Self-Regard, Preparedness For Learning, Attitudes To Teachers, General Work Ethic, Confidence In Learning, Attitudes To Attendance, Response To Curriculum Demands

The PASS factors: Feelings About School, Perceived Learning Capability, Learner Self-Regard, Preparedness For Learning, Attitudes To Teachers, General Work Ethic, Confidence In Learning, Attitudes To Attendance, Response To Curriculum Demands

Why PASS is effective as part of a strategy to address persistent absence:

  • PASS gets to the root of attitudes about school and learning that may not be obvious, measuring a student’s positivity toward nine psychometric factors, including: feelings about school, learner self-regard, and attitudes to attendance.
  • With these insights revealed, PASS helps teachers and school leaders to make decisions to support changes to their whole school climate or to plan early support for fragile individuals. 
  • Research during the development of PASS showed an extraordinarily high correlation of 0.91 – where 1 would be the highest – between students' apprehensions regarding attendance, as revealed by the measure, and actual future absence.
  • Early detection of students' apprehensions about attendance through PASS's visual 'RAG' reports (red, amber, and green indicating severity of the issue) enables timely intervention with appropriate support to prevent recurring absence.
  • PASS includes 70 ready-to-use interventions for teachers to choose and apply, enabling you to start acting on the insights immediately. They’re designed to address issues applying to the whole school, class, group and individuals

It is clear that the underlying reasons behind persistent absence are many and complex, but also that effective strategies by school leaders can have a significant impact. Including PASS in those strategies gives access to robust insights into attitudinal or emotional issues which are often not obvious, but which can directly inform early intervention and classroom practice to help those pupils to fully and more confidently engage with school.

Emma Dibden

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