Attendance and Ofsted: Is it still just a numbers game?


For years, Ofsted inspectors have been constrained by grade descriptors linked to data. On occasions, good practice in relation to mental health and attendance has been overlooked if the statistics aren’t right. In this article, Tony Powell shares his optimism that this will change.


  • In previous frameworks, there were imposed ceilings on the grades that could be given depending on the school’s overall attendance rates.
  • There is increasing awareness of how mental health and well-being impact on behaviour and attendance in our schools.
  • Ofsted’s new framework provides greater opportunity for inspectors to use their professional judgement.

Shortly after news of the suspension of inspections, I was talking to the headteacher of an infant school which I am fortunate to support. The school was graded ‘Outstanding’ in May 2008 and has not been inspected since.

The headteacher pointed out to me that every aspect of the school’s work was graded ‘Outstanding’, except attendance, which was graded ‘Good’. She described the team as being very professional. They acknowledged the school’s hard work in promoting good attendance and the impact of the school’s approach on individual children. However, the lead inspector (LI) explained that he was constrained by the grade descriptors, which stated attendance could not be judged ‘Outstanding’ unless it was above the national average.

We now know that the school’s attendance was, at the time and subsequently, above average for separate infant schools, but that isn’t the point. Her main concern was whether things had changed. With a new framework and a holistic approach to the quality of educational provision and the impact on pupils, will inspectors still be constrained by data?

About 150,000 children and young people have social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs in mainstream and special schools in England. This is likely to increase substantially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools will have a mandate from society and a moral duty to support them. If giving sensitive support to some results in an overall fall in attendance, what will the inspection report say?

What do we know?

We can look at three main areas of change.

 1 Mental health and SEN

‘Special educational needs’ is a legal definition, which refers to children with learning problems or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than most children. Many pupils with mental health issues will have special needs, but there is no automatic overlap, and we will find some on the gifted and talented register.

Growing concern about young people’s mental health linked with a rethink about the causes of challenging behaviour. This led to a marked change in the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice (2015), which identified ‘four broad areas of [special educational]need and support’. These are:

  • communication and interaction
  • cognition and learning
  • social, emotional and mental health
  • sensory and/or physical needs.

‘Social, emotional and mental health’ (SEMH) replaces ‘Behaviour, emotional and social difficulty’. Social, emotional and mental health needs are a type of special educational need in which:

‘Children and young people may experience a wide range of social and emotional difficulties which manifest themselves in many ways. These may include becoming withdrawn or isolated, as well as displaying challenging, disruptive or disturbing behaviour’.

Every teacher and every empathetic adult has always known this. Children and young people who truant, engage in disruptive and anti-social behaviour, have tantrums, are aggressive, or who are withdrawn and depressed aren’t happy. They are troubled with difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

As a society, we are becoming more tolerant, especially of differences. In the past, schools dealt with pupils causing problems punitively because the problem was seen as emanating from the child. Now we are concerned to understand and address the root causes.

Mental health, politics and personalities

Mental health became a major political issue, thanks to the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May. The PM’s priority struck a chord with many powerful people, including senior royals, and more importantly, it resonated with ordinary people. The pandemic has halted progress but paradoxically, it has given schools time to reflect on a changed curriculum for all pupils from September 2020.

3 Mental health, attendance and Ofsted

Instead of focusing on floor targets and coasting targets in a narrow group of subjects, the new framework sees the end of education as preparation for adult life in modern British society. This means that pupils should enjoy a broad and balanced curriculum which develops their stock of cultural capital and they should develop the values of tolerance and respect for the rule of law.

Perhaps the consequences of having generations of adults without these common values are seen as just as pernicious as a virus which does not respect the old.

Seize the (moral) high ground

My answer to the question about whether Ofsted will take a sympathetic approach to balancing mental health and attendance is a resounding ‘Yes!’ for the following reasons.

Ofsted has always seen the way schools treat vulnerable children and especially those with special needs as a marker for their treatment of all pupils. Reports now begin with a section on: ‘What is it like to attend this school?’ and this must include an evaluation of the experience of children with SEND.

HMCI is not under direct political control but the office must be sensitive to political issues. Mental health is political, because it matters to people and the DfE, and many other organisations, have produced guidance to support schools. See for example, ‘Mental health and behaviour in schools’, published by the DfE in November 2018. This is non-statutory advice but, of course, the code of practice is statutory.

Most importantly, the new Ofsted framework represents a change in educational philosophy. There has been a shift from one Secretary of State and HMCI pair to another duo, i.e. from Gove and Wilshaw to Morgan and Spielman. The new approach is based on the curriculum, what and how pupils learn and towards what end, as the ‘real substance of learning’. Inspectors are receiving training in the new methodology.

Attendance remains a very important issue when inspectors are grading any aspect of the school’s work, but they are not required to grade attendance itself. This means they have greater opportunity to exercise their professional judgement and engage with schools to understand their distinctive natures.

Governors and senior leaders must seize the high moral ground by making their aims/intent for pupils with mental health difficulties clear and unambiguous and gather evidence to show the impact on pupils of the support they provide.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Tony Powell

Tony Powell is an experienced Additional Inspector and LA adviser. He writes extensively on education management, but his main work is in supporting schools to develop systems for self-evaluation, school improvement and continuing professional development. Tony can be contacted at:

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