9 min readNavigating School Attendance and Absences From a Safeguarding Lensposted about 1 month ago

Attending school regularly is crucial for a child’s overall development. Regularly attending classes and interacting with their peers and instructors is instrumental for academic progress, social skills development, life skills reinforcement, better career outcomes, and an environment of psychological safety. Being regular at school keeps the child attuned to the curriculum and extra-curricular activities alike. Attendance is directly linked to performance outcomes. 

All schools record details of children’s attendance and absence at school, usually at the beginning of the school day and the afternoon sessions. If there’s a reason for absence, such as an appointment, death in the family or illness, parents must inform the school. Each school’s attendance policy lays down these guidelines. If the parents don’t inform the school about the absence, it is recorded as an “unauthorised” absence. 

School absences have been an increasing concern for a while, with multiple reports sharing how children’s attendance has taken a hit in the aftermath of the pandemic. Department for Education shared that 22.3% of children were “persistently absent” in the academic year 2022-23. A child’s attendance is categorised as a persistent absence if they have missed 10% or more sessions in a year. 

The School Absence Tracker Report by the Centre for Social Justice points out a 2.6% increase in the overall absence rate in Autumn 2022 at 7.5% when compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Then there’s the severely absent children — those absent more often than they were present, at an alarming 1.7% of the school population. That’s 125,222 children who missed school more than they attended, a number that stood at 60,244 in 2019. The 2023 figure stands at 140,000 children – an increase of 134% since before the pandemic.

Many factors are at play here — from the hardships of parents who have recently experienced layoffs, to the division of caretaking responsibilities, and the adaptation to school routine after the lockdown. Normally, it is the legal responsibility of a parent to ensure that a child between the ages of 4 to 16 is receiving quality, full-time education. Attendance is monitored at the school level, and in some cases, specific bodies investigate discrepancies, like the Education Authority (EA) does in Northern Ireland.

School attendance as a sign of wellbeing

Attendance is not just a superficial disciplinary measure or metric, it is a barometer of a child’s well-being, too. Absence from school — prolonged or erratic or consistent — usually is a sign of a bigger challenge they may face at home or in school. A child’s attendance at school could be impacted by bullying, lack of facilities or special needs provision, home environment, commute to and from school, housing or care arrangements, parental work and financial challenges, etc. There’s no gainsaying that attendance is a safeguarding issue. 

When children are frequently absent from school, it could be a sign that they are going through adverse personal circumstances. Constant monitoring helps track this better - if a child starts missing school, both parents and the school can take note and make gentle inquiries from the child. Parents can normally access the attendance guidance from the school website. And they should adhere to it. 

If a school is concerned about spurts of absence or persistent absence, they might want to work with social services to make arrangements, such as offering home tuition in case of chronic conditions, arrange for caretaking to reduce the burden on parents, offer a safe space to the child in case they’re facing bullying or other distress at school. 

How can we ensure robust school attendance?

There are many reasons a child might be missing school, and some of them are not an alarming safeguarding concern unless it happens persistently over a prolonged period. The onus of ensuring a child’s attendance lies on the parents, so we advise parents to ensure this in the ways mentioned below. When school absence becomes concerning, the school can get involved in insulating the child against safeguarding risks. Let’s look at these measures.  

Regular Challenges

The following steps by parents can help ensure regular attendance at school:

  1. Get your child used to a routine early on, and stick to the same waking hours and bedtime routine. 
  2. Apprise your child of the importance of regular attendance, and try to make the morning time fun as they prepare to head to school. Teach them the importance of discipline, routine, and punctuality.
  3. Take a genuine interest in their education and school life, and learn what’s happening at school when they are particularly excited or demotivated to go to school. Observe patterns and use them to motivate your child when they’re feeling dispirited.
  4. Regularly check in with your child about the events and activities happening at school; if anything is concerning, address it with their teacher/principal immediately. 
  5. Let them take time off school when they’re sick or having an emotionally hard time, but keep strict boundaries for minor ailments, injuries, and during holidays. 
  6. Try to schedule appointments after school hours or at weekends. 
  7. If your child has a chronic condition that requires frequent leaves, discuss this with the school, communicate early, pre-empt different scenarios, and come up with a plan to help your child make up for the lost time.

If there’s any disruption to the child’s school schedule, bring them back into routine as soon as the disruption is resolved. 

Safeguarding Challenges

Apart from the regular challenges, if there’s a pattern in the child’s absence at school, there could be an underlying safeguarding issue. Very often, vulnerable children are affected the most. Previous years since the pandemic have shown that the children who are in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM) or Special Educational Needs (SEN) support are more likely to be severely absent — as high as triple — than their peers.

The socio-economic background of children also plays a role. Consider this: 30% of children living in the most disadvantaged areas were persistently absent over the course of 2021/22, as against 14.3% of children living in the most affluent areas over the same period. In such cases, school absences become an early warning sign that the child might be going through hardships at home, their parents might be struggling, or conditions at home endanger their wellbeing. 

Fining parents for their child’s absence when they may already be undergoing hardships is not an effective solution, as it puts more pressure on parents who may already be struggling. Let’s understand how we can effectively address these safety concerns. 

  1. Attendance Mentors and Hubs

The government is running a pilot, with plans to scale the program, whereby mentors are recruited to work with children in the worst-affected areas. The mentors work individually with children, encouraging them to talk openly about any challenges they might be facing, such as financial hardships at home, mental health concerns, bullying, etc.

Attendance hubs have also been set up to address the school absence crisis: These are support-group-style hubs led by senior leaders in schools with effective attendance practices. Through their hubs, lead schools share their strategies and resources for improving attendance. Senior leaders from mainstream maintained schools and academies can apply to join the hubs and discuss their challenges.

  1. Breakfast Provision

Proposed measures also include free breakfast clubs for primary schools to incentivise children to come to school. When feeding the children a nutritious meal at home is hard, whether due to financial constraints or caretaking challenges, this solves the problem for both parents and children. Magic Breakfast, a charity organisation working on this, reported improved attendance in schools with the free breakfast provision in 2023, with 78% of schools agreeing that breakfast has a positive impact on attendance.

  1. Home-school register

Homeschooling numbers are higher than ever before. Proposals have been put forth for introducing a compulsory national register of home-schooled children to ensure regular education. 

  1. Extra-curricular Engagement

Another incentive-based step, encouraging the engagement of children in sports and other extra-curricular activities, can help boost attendance numbers. This will ensure attendance as well as robust growth and development of children. 

  1. Provision for children with SEND

Multiple reports confirm that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have been missing school far more than their peers. One aspect is that schools may not be fulfilling these needs. Another concern is the need to attend medical appointments among children with SEND. Both will contribute to dismal attendance at school, a place where they should flourish. Schools should prioritise resources for inclusion of children with SEND, and parents should demand this for their children.

  1. Mental health barriers

We’ve extensively shared resources for children’s mental health and the need to create a psychologically safe space in schools. Mental health challenges, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, can impact a child’s school attendance. Even when there are resources to access, children are often met with long waiting periods. The capacity of mental health services needs to be expanded in the educational setting. 

  1. Subsidiary issues: Transport and Uniform Costs

Attending school can also have tangible barriers for children. When parents are either struggling financially or are too stressed (due to layoffs, dismal job market, or tough conditions as we navigate the post-pandemic world), or if the caretaking is too haphazard, details like the child’s commute from and to school, their uniform, etc can slip through the cracks. DfE offers support for transport costs to low-income families, but this should be supplemented by community support to ensure the safety of children during commutes if parents are at work. 

Spotlight: Use of AI in managing school absences

Among the many proposals floating for tackling school absences, one involves the use of artificial intelligence to identify absence trends by “joining up existing records for children and improving coordination between education, social care and the wider services that support families”. Research has shown that AI can help track patterns: Monday morning was the most common time for absenteeism at the school, for example. Interventions or campaigns can address the root cause of the problem. 

The use of AI in the process of tackling school absences should be done with caution. There are concerns about data privacy and the bias of the tool that needs to be addressed before moving to such a system.

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Kritika M Narula

Kritika M Narula

Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.