A report by the National Audit Office today has highlighted the major challenge faced by the Department for Education and Skills in reducing pupil absence from schools. The Department, together with local authorities and schools, has made some progress in reducing total absence. At the same time, there has been no decline in unauthorised absence, the causes of which have proved difficult to tackle. The Department must sustain momentum to achieve substantial and lasting improvements in pupil attendance.
The total absence rate in 2003-04 is equivalent to 450,000 of the 6.7 million pupils in maintained schools in England not attending each day. This includes absence that schools authorise for legitimate reasons, most commonly health reasons, such as illness or medical appointments. Attendance needs to be managed because, while absent, young people are not benefiting from education to the value of £1.6 billion each year. This represents an educational loss to the young people themselves – absence from school can make a big difference to pupils’ achievements. Pupils with high absence rates are much more likely to leave school with few or no qualifications and they are more at risk of being drawn into undesirable activities, including crime and anti-social behaviour.
Absence rates vary substantially between schools, from under one per cent to nearly 30 per cent of school days. Some of the variation is associated with socio-economic conditions: in particular, schools with high levels of pupils with free school meals (an indicator of deprivation) tend to see higher rates of absence. Nevertheless, many schools’ absence rates are clearly better or worse than would be expected from their context, and at least some of the difference is likely to be due to how schools deal with absence.
Although the Department’s main focus in recent years has been to reduce unauthorised absence, it has remained steady at 0.7 per cent of school days. Total absence in maintained schools, which includes unauthorised absence, has been reduced to 6.7 per cent of school days in 2003-04 (from 7.6 per cent in 1994-95). This reduction in absence is the equivalent of around 60,000 more pupils back in school each day.
The Department has introduced a range of initiatives to fund and support improved management of attendance at a local level. Overall, the initiatives are leading to improvements. For example, under the Behaviour Improvement Programme (the largest national initiative which provides local authorities with funding to tackle poor standards of behaviour, including poor attendance), the Department has allocated £331 million of funding between July 2002 and 2005-06 to authorities in deprived areas. The Programme has had an impact, with absence rates in the first schools to benefit from the funding declining on average twice as fast as the national absence rate, although around one fifth of these schools have not reduced absence.
Other national initiatives have provided expert advice for schools and local authorities, helped to improve the efficiency of their attendance management systems, and raised the profile of school attendance.
According to today’s report, the Department’s attendance strategy should be enhanced by increasing the focus on primary school absence and parental attitudes. There is a risk of younger pupils falling into a pattern of absence that tends to increase over time if the causes are not resolved. Negative parental attitudes to education are closely associated with absence, and may also be more difficult to change once they become established. The most successful schools have a culture of high attendance and they integrate their views on attendance into wider, positive communications with pupils, parents and carers.
Local authorities and schools do much good work in improving attendance, but effective practices should be more widely adopted. For example, increased use of electronic systems for registering pupils and monitoring attendance would help tackle absence in secondary schools. And where secondary school pupils struggle with academic subjects, some schools have improved pupils’ motivation by developing the curriculum in ways that match pupils’ aptitudes and aspirations better.
Ofsted inspections of schools and local authorities have a valuable role to play in improving attendance management, highlighting weaknesses and encouraging actions to improve attendance. There may be scope for Ofsted to add further value by increasing the emphasis on improving attendance.