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Using behavioural insights to improve school attendance

  • Blog
  • 27th Nov 2023

Since the pandemic, absence rates at schools have doubled. In an average secondary school, one in ten students is missing from each class. For the most deprived students (on free school meals), over 37% are missing at least a day every fortnight. Absent children are at greater risk of harm, through abuse and exploitation, and are much less likely to achieve the qualifications that unlock future opportunity. 

Our colleagues at Nesta recently used granular attendance data to understand who was missing school and, where possible, why. In this blog, we try to address the next question: how can worsening school absences be reversed?

The rise in absences is affecting all students, but individual schools are bucking the trend

There has long been an association between need and absence: pupils eligible for free school meals and with SEN much more likely to be persistently or severely absent. However, Nesta’s analysis revealed the indiscriminate nature of the recent upsurge in absence. Almost all pupil groups, regardless of disadvantage or need, are missing around 50% more school than before the pandemic. 

Despite this, Nesta’s analysis found a small number of schools bucking the trend of rising absence. These schools are not small, selective or full of affluent pupils – they are big secondaries, with above average number of pupils on FSM or with SEN. They look identical to many schools that are seeing spiralling absences. The difference in absence rates between these schools is likely to be largely rooted in their unique attendance policies and processes. 

Addressing all the complex and structural factors that shape attendance rates is not something that schools can tackle alone. But the fact that some schools are bucking the trend suggests that internal policies and processes can make a difference. A review by the Education Endowment Foundation last year found that most widely used approaches are largely untested. However, evidence from the US suggests three low-cost steps that schools can take: clearer communication with parents, anti-bullying programmes, and better use of data. 

Communicate with parents about absences

Parents do not always know how much school their child has missed, or how ‘normal’ that level of absence is. Simply telling them can have substantial impacts on future attendance.

In study from Harvard University, for example, parents received letters telling them how many days their child has missed and the potential impact on their child’s attainment. The letters also contain advice on how parents can help to improve their child’s attendance. This approach reduced the number of chronic absentees (those missing 18 days or more a year) by 10%, and cost around $6 per additional day of pupil attendance generated. By comparison, a programme involving attendance mentors cost $500 per additional day of pupil attendance generated.  

Inspired by the Havard study, BIT’s work with Bristol Council took a similar approach using text messages. Parents of pupils with low attendance (less than 95%) received a message like this:

Dear Rachek,

So far this year, Riz has missed 8 days of school. Pupils who miss 1 or 2 days a month can fall behind. The next term is a fresh start – you can have a big effect on Riz’s attendance and we appreciate your help!

90% attendance could sound positive in a school context, but in reality this equates to 15 days (3 weeks) missed of a 39 week year. Communicating the days missed, rather than the percentage, helps to remove this misperception. The Bristol trial resulted in a boost in the proportion of students keeping good attendance records (95%+) by 4 percentage points (59.5% to 63.3%). BIT is now working with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) to test the impact of the messages at scale. A randomised control trial with 115 secondary schools from across the country will take place in the 2023/24 academic year, with results expected in 2025.

Implement evidence-based anti-bullying programmes

In 2017, 1 in 10 pupils reported missing school over the previous six months because they felt unsafe, mainly as a result of conflict with other students or bullying. School registration systems are not set up to record absence that occurs as a result of pupils feeling too unsafe to attend. However, in many cases, pupils will claim to be too ill, or will just refuse to go in, leading to a record of ‘authorised illness’ or ‘unauthorised absence’ (for which no reason is given). Nesta’s analysis showed that the rise in absence between 2018/19 and 2021/22 was fuelled largely by these two types of absence. 

A promising approach to tackling bullying is the Grassroots programme, first developed in the US. A trial involving more than 24,000 pupils found the programme reduced conflict among pupils by up to 60% (as measured by disciplinary incidents).

The programme builds on social norms theory, which says that we are influenced by the behaviour of those around us. To start with, students are surveyed about who they spend time with, to identify the 30 pupils at the centre of the school’s social network.   These ‘referents’ have an outsized influence over social norms at the school and receive intensive coaching on how to promote anti-conflict behaviours. 

BIT is now conducting a trial of Grassroots in one hundred English and Welsh schools, following a similar approach to the US trial, with results expected in 2025.

Data analytics could play a greater role in tackling attendance

Schools across the country collect huge amounts of data on attendance, yet we are only scratching the surface of how it can be used. Nesta’s partnership with a company that collects and manages school data was used to look beyond DfE data and dig deeper into the nature of Friday absences. The granularity and recency of the data means there is potential for the early identification of pupils whose typical attendance patterns are changing, and may be shifting into persistent and severe absence brackets. 

The almost blanket use of Management Information Systems across the country creates a huge amount of data, but schools are typically not in a position to harness it, or aware of the power of doing so. AI can identify attendance patterns, make predictions and target interventions in order to support schools to improve their attendance, but its use is currently on a small, ad hoc basis in the UK. 

The analysis conducted by Nesta and others points to an unprecedented and potentially long-lasting attendance challenge for schools. The issue is complex, involving socioeconomic pressures and shifts in long-held views on the value of schooling. There is no silver bullet solution. Large scale, evaluated trials of nudges and peer network building (such as those being conducted by BIT) and the use of AI, is now the next step to take in building the evidence base for these promising approaches.