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Is it time to rethink attendance in schools? Children in the classroom

Is it time to rethink attendance in schools?

A report published by the DfE recently has addressed the ongoing problems with attendance in schools since the beginning of the pandemic. The report lists some of the challenges schools are facing, including increased anxiety from both parents and children, higher than average absence due to pupils with Covid 19 and a disengagement from education.

With this in mind, it begs the question - is it time to rethink attendance in schools?

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It is no surprise that attendance has taken a hit during a global pandemic, especially when guidance previously told parents to keep their children at home and isolate if they had symptoms. Historically, good attendance has been extremely important to schools - and also to a school’s rating. Ofsted often use attendance data to inform their overall rating of a school, whether it be outstanding, good or requires improvement. 

Mental Health of Children Then vs Now 

Of course, attendance is important in a child's overall attainment and achievement - which has been proven over the course of the pandemic - however, a lot has changed since the post-war schooling system, in particular attitudes towards the mental health of children. Many adults will remember the days of attendance awards and certificates being given out to those who managed an impressive 100% attendance across the school year. Some might even remember feeling a bit deflated - especially for those whose attendance suffered because of circumstances out of their control. Not to mention children who had a chronic illness or disability where they needed to attend doctors and hospital appointments… These children would have never had  the chance at receiving a 100% attendance award.

child feeling down
A child feeling down

These problems are still very much part of school life - but with the addition of a pandemic, children's mental health is very much at the forefront of policy. In a survey conducted in summer term 2021, the most common reasons reported by the DfE for absence were that: 

  • pupils were anxious
  • pupils or parents had specific health needs, including those identified at that time as clinically vulnerable or extremely clinically vulnerable
  • pupils had disengaged from education during the pandemic

It is true that many employees are entitled to time off due to their mental health in the same way a person would if they had a physical illness. It seems attitudes are changing, where once the British way was to work through the pain…now more and more employers are recognising that a healthy workforce is a happy workforce. 

A child needing time off from school because they are suffering from anxiety isn't always met with the same level of understanding compared to when they are off due to a stomach bug. To add to the pressure families feel, if a child is off for a prolonged period of unauthorised time, this can result in parents being fined.

Should we be praising high attendance if it is at the detriment of the child? 

It is understandable that children in the current circumstances would be anxious to go to school. Many are lucky, myself included, that they can choose to work from home in order to stay safe from Covid. As a person who has suffered with health anxiety from a very young age, you can imagine that my attendance was not always the best - if the pandemic had happened when I was still attending school, I am sure being home educated would have been my first choice, and so it has for many others. According to the recent report by the DfE, home education has seen a rise since the start of the pandemic. 

“Schools continue to report increased requests from parents for elective home education, as do local authorities. While these may not be as high as they were at the peak of the pandemic, they continue to be higher than usual in some schools.”

Pressures on Parents 

The DfE also reported that children's anxieties are often unrelated to school itself but other contributing factors such as family members being ill, seeing parents under more stress than usual, domestic violence and financial hardship. 

It is inevitable that children will be aware of their parents suffering from higher levels of stress. Parents during the pandemic have taken on supporting children’s learning at home as well as working and ensuring their family stays afloat. When children were able to attend school, parents were fearful of children contracting the virus and spreading it to vulnerable family members. With fines being in place, many parents were choosing between keeping their children and family safe and risking more financial hardship. 

Of course, children’s attendance has direct implications on parents and the school's relationship with the family. There is some argument to say that parents are in fact not aware of what makes good attendance. According to the DfE report “attendance data is misunderstood by parents – while 90% may be good as a mark in a test, in attendance terms it means one day a fortnight being missed.”


Parent and child
Parent and child


This may come as a shock to some, as the majority would assume 90% sounds like a good amount of time spent in school. The DfE describes the hard line schools are taking with parents 

“Leaders who are successful in improving attendance and maintaining high levels of attendance over time have expectations that are high for all pupils. They make it clear to parents that parents are responsible for ensuring that their children attend school…Expectations are also communicated as soon as the child joins the school”

Interestingly, one parent we spoke to explained that even though guidance at the time dictated that her child stay at home whilst unwell with Covid, it still went against her attendance record. This seems unfair given it was both imposed by the government and the school. There won't be many 100% attendance certificates at the end of the year if this is the case across other schools.

Parents are encouraged by schools to keep infectious children, suffering from things like chicken pox or D&V at home. But with such a focus on good attendance, some parents may feel pressure to send children back to school before they are fully recovered. 

Although children's attendance is important, have schools got ulterior motives when it comes to the school’s placement in league tables? And would this come at a cost to children’s well being? 

Children in the school corridor
Children in the school corridor

There is a perception that some parents take advantage of the system, taking children out of school for regular holidays or days out here and there. This is where fines play a part in encouraging parents to keep their children in school. There is, however, a counter argument for this when considering the impact of the pandemic. Taking a family on holiday during the school holidays is expensive at the best of times. According to one report by inews, parents can pay up to 63% more to go abroad in August in comparison to September when children are back in school. With a backlog of holidays planned and cancelled because of the pandemic, it’s no wonder that parents are desperate to take their families away for a well needed holiday - with some choosing to do this during school time because of the cost implications. 

The School Attendance: Schools Bill Factsheet published by the government in May 2022 addresses problems regarding attendance, with a focus on attendance being the 'best place for children's attainment and wellbeing'. However, it could be argued that the  guidance falls short of considering individual circumstances and applies pressure to parents to make sure children, no matter how they are feeling, are attending school.

Educational institutions will always encourage good attendance in children, but can good attendance allow for children to look after their mental health? Or show understanding of circumstances outside of their control? Maybe it is time to rethink what ‘good attendance’ really means. 

Explore more blogs about Mental health in schools.


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