An evidence informed approach to improving attendance

28 March 2018

Author: Shaun Allison


Today we launched our Strategic School Improvement Fund (SSIF) project on improving attendance, in collaboration with the Pavillion and Downs Teaching School Alliance.  We will be working with secondary schools across West Sussex and Brighton to support them with improving attendance.  As a research school, our starting point for this was ‘what does the evidence tell us about improving attendance?’

In February 2015, the DfE published a report ‘The link between absence and attainment at KS2 and KS4’.  The graph above is an extract from this and shows quite clearly that as students miss more lessons in secondary schools, their attainment across a range of measure declines. The report also shows a similar effect at KS2.  This is useful confirmation of what we intuitively know, attendance makes a difference to student attainment.

So what does the evidence say about improving attendance?

In ‘Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils; Articulating success and good practice’ the authors discuss the importance of robust attendance data tracking and monitoring systems in schools, to address attendance issues.  This allows patterns of absence to be scrutinised and then targeted interventions to be put in place.  It also allows schools to monitor the effectiveness of any interventions they are putting in place to improve attendance and readjust as necessary.  This is far more effective than general approaches to improving attendance and requires strong and determined leadership.

In ‘Intervening through influential third parties’ Rogers targeted high risk students in the USA, by sending letters to their parents, comparing their level of absenteeism to that of their classmates.  The intention here was to correct the parents’ biased beliefs about how their child’s absences compare to their classmates.  Whilst this trial seemed to have a positive impact in terms of adjusting parents’ biased beliefs about their child’s absence, it had limited impact on student attendance.  So whilst it gave parents a more informed and accurate view of their child’s attendance, compared to their peers, it  didn’t necessarily improve their attendance.

So, just raising parents’ awareness is not enough.  This is supported by the EEF toolkit findings on parental engagement.  Whilst it can have an impact on students, it needs to be very carefully planned and can be hard to do.  This is not entirely surprising.  As a parent, changing the habits of teenagers who are subject to peer pressure can be difficult.  Furthermore, this becomes even more difficult as the students get older.  Some suggestions around how parental engagement can be improved include:

  1. Have you provided a flexible approach to allow parental involvement to fit around their schedule?
  2. Parents of older children may appreciate short sessions at flexible times to involve them.
  3. How will you make your school welcoming for parents whose own experience of school may not have been positive?
  4. Have you provided some simple, practical ways that parents can support their children in ways that do not require a high level of ability?

So, if the impact of parents is limited, we turn our attention to an intervention based around the students.  ‘Nudge Theory’ is growing in use across a range of public sector areas, for example health.  This theory proposes that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions, are more effective as ways to influence the behaviour and decision making of groups and individuals.  So for example, in dental practice rather than simply sending a reminder text about an appointment, this could be rephrased to ‘We really don’t want you to miss your dental check up on 6th May 2018, as our records suggest a link between people who miss check ups, and those requiring more serious dental treatment later on’.

We have been adopting this approach at Durrington.  We directly text students who have a poor attendance track record, explaining why we don’t want them to miss school, in terms of the missed learning opportunities e.g. ‘Really looking forward to seeing you in school today.  Your fellow students who have an attendance of 96% or higher are really improving their chances of achieving well in their GCSEs’.  So, as well as targeting the parents we are also trying to ‘nudge’ the students.  We set this up as a small trial, with a control and intervention group (randomised) in Y10 and monitored their attendance over two terms.  So far, this intervention has shown an effect size of 0.4 in terms of improving attendance.  This suggests that this approach is worth pursuing.

And finally, in ‘Preventing dropout in secondary schools’, the point is made that to really sustain an improvement in attendance at an individual level, there needs to be support for targeted students.  This allows schools to understand and address the specific issues that are blocking individual student attendance and intervene when they start to show signs of falling off track. This is usually most effective when each student who is at risk of poor attendance, is assigned a single adult to be that student’s primary advocate and support.

To summarise, our package of support for schools through this SSIF funding will include:

  • Ensuring effective data systems and leadership are in place around attendance, to ensure the targeted implementation of intervention and support for students.
  • The use of comparison letters to parents to address any bias they may have about their child’s level of absence, compared to their peers.
  • The use of ‘nudge texts’ directly to the ‘at risk’ students to encourage them to attend school more regularly.
  • In school monitoring and support of students to keep their attendance on track.

You can hear more about this work at a twilight we are going to offer next term – date to be confirmed.

Posted on 28 March 2018
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