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Insight 02/04/2024

Improving school attendance by fostering a sense of community belonging

By Laura Fox

Since 2010, school absence rates in England have gradually increased, and were undoubtedly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a small decrease in persistent absences from 2022 to 2023, attendance rates have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. In this article, we explore the causes of persistent school absences, and identify promising interventions to ensure more pupils in England consistently attend school.

Why are school absences still so high? 

Government statistics on pupil attendance in schools continue to demonstrate the persistent problem of absence.  Although rates of persistent absenteeism1 dropped from 22.5% in 2021-22 to 22.3%2 in 2022-23, overall absence and persistent absence rates remain higher than they were prior to the pandemic.

A recent report into persistent school absence  by the Education Select Committee has identified barriers linked to poverty as a key driver in post-pandemic attendance issues. This is alongside a higher rate of absence for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), who are more likely than their peers to miss school, especially where their specific individual needs are not being met.  

Studies into the state of attendance have also highlighted the intersectional divides impacting absenteeism. Notably, female pupils who are eligible for Pupil Premium (a grant the UK government gives to schools in England to decrease the attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children) or have SEND are particularly likely to have low attendance. This imbalance casts doubt over how well current provisions meet the needs of all pupils, especially those who need the greatest support.

Further causes of school absence make the matter even more complex, including sickness, anxiety, family holidays, and exceptional domestic circumstances. No single intervention is likely to be effective in addressing all of these drivers of absence. 


How does low attendance affect learners? 

As attendance drivers are context-specific, so too are the impacts of low attendance. 

As pupils miss out on learning content during their absences, academic progress is often a major concern.  Falling behind on learning can present an insurmountable challenge to the anxious learner, who must simultaneously ‘catch-up’ and engage with the current curriculum. 

Further studies in school absenteeism have identified correlations between the reasons for absence and their likely impact, including frequent bouts of sickness signalling potential long-term health conditions (and therefore, longer-term absence) and absences caused by truancy having a negative impact on behaviour. In addition, absences commonly have negative impacts on students’ relationships due to reduced social interactions and alienation from peers. This lack of integration can hinder a learner’s sense of belonging and safety within the school environment. 


The importance of community belonging 

Learners’ sense of belonging in the school community can be a cause of absenteeism - if a learner does not feel that they belong within their school community, their risk of absence is higher. Subsequently, interventions which increase a pupil’s sense of belonging can improve attendance.  Active community involvement boosts an individual’s sense of safety, develops social skills, and increases confidence, becoming a chief motivator for action and a ‘key driver of [school] attendance across all contexts’. 

Despite this, a range of influences, including academic motivation, parental engagement, and emotional stability mean that this sense of belonging can be transient or even isolating, especially for the most vulnerable pupils. Improved attendance rates depend on a schools’ success in addressing this complexity and fostering positive engagement with all pupils. 


Promising interventions to improve school attendance  

While there is no ‘attendance elixir’, proactive interventions that assess and address individual needs, and seek to develop communities where pupils feel safe, are more likely to be successful. 

A meta-analysis of 51 studies about school belonging concluded that, above peer and parental influences, teacher support has the strongest correlation with a pupil’s sense of belonging.  Effective school-pupil relationships which prioritise caring relationships and friendliness can also provide greater insight into individual motivators and barriers to attendance.    

By evaluating the impact of one-to-one and small group interventions, a correlation has also been suggested between pupil relationships and school engagement. Where schools can effectively communicate the importance of school and peer relationships, attendance may be positively impacted. Whilst the Department for Education’s National Tutoring Programme prioritises academic attainment, pupils who receive school-led tutoring – and who have therefore had increased teacher-pupil interactions – have been found to have increased self-efficacy, motivation, and school engagement scores, heightened by existing relationships between their schools and families. 

Regardless of academic or pastoral aims, becoming familiar with a pupil’s context enables schools and wider stakeholders, such as the Educational Psychology Service (EPS) or family support workers (where required), to be collaborative, tailoring support to individual needs. However, taking such approaches to attendance requires adequate resources to diagnose and implement the required support for individuals. 


Key recommendations 

To tackle these issues around absenteeism, we propose a deliberate whole-school focus on belonging, through inclusive and accessible opportunities, as a foundation for action.  Specifically, we recommend:   

  • Relationship mapping to identify existing relationships between school-based staff and pupils, seeking to identify and support those on the periphery of the school community. 
  • Using attendance, engagement and relationship mapping data to develop staff-to-staff, staff-to-pupil, and pupil-to-pupil mentorships. Such opportunities can help to strengthen relationships, increase individual sense of belonging, build confidence, and raise aspirations. 
  • Providing opportunities for small-group interactions through inclusive in-school social clubs and support networks. 
  • Reviewing the curriculum to ensure it remains representative, inclusive, and accessible for all pupils through its content and delivery. 
  • Nurturing a culture of recognition that celebrates individual achievements, talents, and contributions, along with collective goals and shared experiences. 
  • Connecting to the wider school community through parent/carer engagement activities and social support, using the language of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to share the school’s collaborative culture.  

The relationship between belonging and attendance is not new to those within the education sector. However, belonging doesn’t happen by accident, and intentionality is paramount. Those who work in schools should continue to nurture relationships to support all pupils to access learning and, as a result, achieve a sense of belonging among pupils, staff and parents, for the benefit of all learners, regardless of their background.



1Absence is defined as persistent absenteeism when a pupil’s overall absence equates to 10% or more of their possible sessions.