Attendance – and how to improve it

Pupil absence occurs for many reasons. Adele Bates offers ways to find out the cause of low attendance and get pupils back in school

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

Pupils not listening, disrupting others or hanging out on the ceiling are all behavioural barriers to learning, and sometimes – if you’re one of those human teachers – it can be very tempting to *wish* that certain children don’t come in – because that way, you get to teach the others.

However, with the disruptive behaviour we can deal with, there’s still a chance. That chance reduces to zero when a pupil is not in class, or worse, school.

Since the pandemic, attendance has become an increasing focus, even in mainstream schools. It is something that special schools and alternative provisions deal as par of the course. In the alternative education I work in, the most important first port-of-call is the meet and greet.

Front line staff and welcoming pupils

Even before lateness or attendance becomes an issue, front line staff who greet the pupils into school will start to notice different behaviours.

  • Are some pupils always rushed?
  • Do some pupils seem anxious on arrival?
  • Do some need a lot of persuading to enter the classroom?
  • What kind of welcome are the pupils getting when they arrive?
  • Is it all about ‘come on, you’re late’ – how would that work for a pupil who has spent the last 2 hours anxiously trying to get on the bus?

This first point of the day can be vital both to the pupils’ willingness to be in school, and as a source of information on what issues may be arising.

Find out what the lack of attendance is about

Behaviour communicates something to us – absence is a very strong message. So the first step to any form of intervention or improvement is to find out the why.

Over my years in alternative provision, I’ve heard of everything from being taken out of the area by another family member, being groomed by a gang or older friends, feigning illness or parent and carers feigning the child’s illness, and an extremely common one: anxiety and mental health issues.

So how do we find out?

Look for changes in patterns

As Dr Pooky Knightsmith explains in her useful video Mental Health Warning Signs for Schools – Attendance & Punctuality, schools are very good at monitoring attendance and punctuality, and it’s not uncommon to give out late marks and detentions.

Examine the data – is it usual for this young person to be late? Are there particular days they’re not attending? Has there been a sudden change? A regular pattern of absence on Tuesdays might tell us there is something they find difficult or are avoiding.

If there has been a sudden change in lateness, particularly in the mornings, it may tell us that there have been changes at home, that there’s some form of struggle.

Possible changes

  • Maybe the pupil has taken on extra responsibilities
  • Maybe the pupil is being challenged with mental health issues such as depression and low mood meaning that it’s hard for them to get out of bed
  • Perhaps some form of anxiety driven mental illness such as issues with food and eating could be the cause
  • OCD may mean they are taking extra time doing checks, leading to lateness.


We can go on thinking of many reasons why low attendance might be happening and we must also speak with the young person to see if we can find out. Attendance and lateness conversations are often punitive in schools, so it might not be easy for the young person to open up at first, knowing more than likely that a punishment will be on its way.

As much as you can approach the conversation with curiosity, concern and non-judgement 'I’ve noticed that on Tuesdays you always seem to be late, what happens on Tuesdays at school, is there something you’re worried about?', 'Is there anything we can do to help at school?'

Behaviour communicates something to us – absence is a very strong message


The pupil may or may not be able to articulate fully what’s going on for them the first time you have a conversation with them, but the important thing is that you listen – that you establish yourself as a member of staff that they can trust, without judgement. Building up that level of trust will mean they are more likely to share troubles and challenges with you moving forwards.

Parents and carers

Contact parents or carers early on in your inquiry. They may be able to quickly shed light on the pupil’s difficulties and be relieved that you are calling to help.

If they are unable to share any insight, or become closed themselves, it is also good that they can see that school are noticing their child’s behaviour, care about their wellbeing and education, and are not going to let it go and forget about them.


Lateness and absence can be a huge cause of stress for a pupil, which can quickly spiral and bring in its own difficulties. So the sooner you are able to make contact with home and have the conversation with the pupil, the quicker you can put in support.

Contact parents or carers early on in your inquiry. They may be able to quickly shed light on the pupil’s difficulties


Educational Psychologist Dr Phylly Pritchard works regularly with pupils who have difficulty attending school. One of her top tips for encouraging pupils to be at school is to foster a sense of belonging in the school community. If a child has low attendance, when they are in school, ensure they feel valued and know you are happy that they are there.

Unfortunately, the less we attend something, the harder it is to attend, as we worry increasingly how much we have missed out on and create anxiety around the idea that ‘they’re getting on without me just fine’. It’s good to ensure all staff who work with a pupil with low attendance are informed of this, and actively seek to encourage positive welcoming when the pupil is in school (even if they do have the wrong type of shoes on).

Dr Phylly suggests, that if a young person is only in school some of the time, giving them a responsibility or task in that time will heighten their feeling of belonging.

Key Adult

For a pupil whose attendance is sporadic, allocating a key adult can help with feelings of continuity for the child. It gives a chance for trust and a positive relationship to build with at least one adult at school. This adult can also then relay messages to other staff that may affect the pupil’s wellbeing or learning.

This key adult could be the person who always greets them, they could check in with them at lunch, the end of the day, they may attend meetings between parents, carers and school, there may be some activities they do with the pupil whilst at school that the pupil enjoys, a shared interest between the pupil and the key adult – enabling them to experience school as a positive place that they wish to be.


The reason forabsence can be varied, so it is important that schools remain flexible with how they offer support. Attempting a ‘one-size-should-fit-all’ approach will most likely fail. In the same way as we adapt the learning to supporting young people with academic barriers to accessing the curriculum, in this instance, we need to differentiate our approaches to support when removing barriers to attendance.

Work with the pupil (and home)

There is no point school creating a beautiful colour-coded plan of a new timetable or session schedule, if the main stakeholder is not involved.

When planning intervention, use the key adult to have conversations with the pupil to find out what is most likely to work, if appropriate involve parents and carers or other teachers too.

Don’t give up

Keeping the wider perspective is important: education can be the key to breaking cycles, gaining information, a young person realising their potential…we must always strive for education for all of our pupils, and be consistent with our expectations and effort required to get them into the learning space, even when it’s tricky.

Last Updated: 
07 Mar 2022