Working together to improve school attendance

What action can schools take to support good attendance? We review recent reports and the latest DfE guidance

Author details

Liz Worthen is the head of content at Optimus Education. Starting her career as a secondary school English teacher, Liz has since worked in education resource and CPD programme management. She has a particular interest in workforce development...

Pupil attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and this is causing concern for schools, Ofsted and the DfE.

As highlighted in the guidance Working together to improve school attendance (first published May 2022), there are two key reasons why attendance matters:

  • there's a correlation between high academic performance and high attendance
  • regular attendance is a protective factor for more vulnerable students.

While the guidance is currently non-statutory, ‘subject to Parliament, the Secretary of State has committed to this guidance becoming statutory when parliamentary time allows (this will be no sooner than September 2023).’ (See paragraph 1 of the guidance.)

Indeed, the Schools Bill features four proposed laws around attendance, including a requirement for schools to publish their attendance policy. See the school attendance factsheet for details.

Attendance is everybody’s business

The notion of attendance as ‘everyone’s business’ features in the Ofsted report Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence (February 2022):

Many schools that are successful in securing high levels of attendance adopt a similar approach to attendance as they do to safeguarding. They make it ‘everyone’s business, all the time’. Leaders of schools where attendance had previously been too low had challenged their staff to understand that noticing absence, following this up and promoting good attendance are ‘everyone’s job’.

This is echoed in the ‘Working together to improve school attendance’ guidance.

Securing good attendance… cannot solely be the preserve of a single member of staff, or organisation, it must be a concerted effort across all teaching and non-teaching staff in school, the trust or governing body, the local authority, and other local partners. (Paragraph 8)

Curriculum, behaviour, SEN, mental health and wellbeing are all part of the picture, along with the effective use of resources, including pupil premium.

What’s expected of schools?

The ‘Working together’ guidance outlines a list of expectations for schools that will enable them to ‘manage and improve attendance effectively’ (paragraph 15).

  • Develop and maintain a whole school culture that promotes the benefits of high attendance.
  • Have a clear school attendance policy which all staff, pupils and parents understand.
  • Accurately complete admission and, with the exception of schools where all pupils are boarders, attendance registers and have effective day to day processes in place to follow-up absence.
  • Regularly monitor and analyse attendance and absence data to identify pupils or cohorts that require support with their attendance and put effective strategies in place.
  • Build strong relationships with families, listen to and understand barriers to attendance and work with families to remove them.
  • Share information and work collaboratively with other schools in the area, local authorities, and other partners when absence is at risk of becoming persistent or severe.

The role of governors and trustees

All governing bodies and trusts are expected to:

  • recognise the importance of school attendance and promote it across the school’s ethos and policies
  • ensure school leaders fulfil expectations and statutory duties
  • regularly review attendance data, discuss, and challenge trends, and help school leaders focus improvement efforts on the individual pupils or cohorts who need it most
  • ensure school staff receive adequate training on attendance (paragraph 51).

Where schools are in multi-academy trusts of federations, there’s an expectation that effective practice will be shared across schools (see paragraph 52).

Local authority responsibilities

Local authorities are facilitators of wider support needed by individual families and schools to overcome barriers in the short term. They are also strategic leaders that work across a geographical area to remove barriers in the longer term. (Paragraph 66)

Local authorities are expected to ‘rigorously track local attendance data’ so that they can plan a strategic, contextual approach to unblocking barriers to attendance (paragraph 67).

They are also expected to have a School Attendance Support Team in place, which provides advice, multi-disciplinary support for families, and takes forward legal intervention where necessary – free of charge to schools. There’s a recognition that in some areas a transition period will be required, but the support team should be available, without any charge or service level agreement, no later than September 2023 (paragraph 68).

There is a useful summary table of responsibilities which lays out the role of parents, schools, governing bodies or trustees, and local authorities, for different pupil groups.

White paper and data commitments

Attendance has a high profile in the Opportunity for all white paper, with a promise that ‘All children will be taught in calm, orderly, safe and supportive schools with high levels of attendance’ (page 24). ‘Effective use of data’ is mentioned frequently, along with a commitment to launching a ‘national data system’:

We will design a national data solution and introduce legislation to modernise the rules on recording attendance. This integrated, 21st century approach to tracking attendance will provide a safety net for spotting vulnerable children at risk of falling through the net. It will also provide a blueprint for wider data improvements across the system. (Paragraph 76)

We await more detail as to how and when this will take shape!

The white paper also pledges better access to best practice around attendance, with funding for the Education Endowment Foundation and the Youth Endowment Fund to develop attendance resources for schools (paragraph 75).

Relevant reports

Last Updated: 
26 May 2022