Improving student attendance

  • 2020

COVID-19 is exacerbating attendance issues, due both to disruption and increased anxiety. Attendance at remote learning sessions has been very low during school closures, particularly for less advantaged pupils – leading to a widening in attainment gaps by about a third. Even where schools have returned, attendance rates have often been lower than usual – at around 88% in England (anything below 95% is considered problematic). To close attainment gaps, governments will need new efforts to support good attendance. 


Why this matters

Absence rates in the UK, US and elsewhere tend to be too high even in normal times. 13% of UK pupils are persistently absent from school (i.e., miss 10% or more of school days), while 16% of US pupils are chronically absent (i.e., missing 15 days of school per year or about 8% of school days). The consequences of persistent absenteeism are significant. Student absences robustly predict academic performance, drug and alcohol use, criminality, and risk of later life adverse outcomes. By contrast, even a small increase in attendance can lead to a meaningful improvement in attainment. For example, every extra half-day of attendance during Key Stage 4 in the UK (age 14-16) correlates with a 1.8 per cent increase in the likelihood of achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent.


How behavioural insights can help

While many barriers to attendance are structural in nature, others are behavioural. For example, schools tend to express attendance as a percentage. This can be confusing and may not clearly signal a problem when one exists, since in a school context ‘90% attendance’ sounds positive, but could actually reflect 15 days of school missed (which is problematic).

BIT and Bristol City Council ran a recent randomised controlled trial with 9,000 pupils to test the impact of parent updates about school days missed by their children (only sent to parents of pupils with below 95% attendance in the previous term). Exploratory analysis found that the intervention drove a significant increase in the proportion of students keeping good attendance records (95%+) – a 4 percentage point rise from 59.5% to 63.3% (see below). Additionally, we saw that the intervention was effective during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak – suggesting that a version of this intervention could boost attendance as schools return. For more information, read this blog post. 


The effect of attendance updates on students keeping good attendance records

Attendance before and during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic