Attendance matters even more?


Since September 2019, Ofsted inspections have prioritised the curriculum as the ‘real substance of education’. Since the group of pupils not accessing the curriculum at all are those that are not in school, this makes absence even more important for inspectors, Tony Powell explains. 


  • Before the inspection, the lead inspector will look to see if attendance is an important issue. 
  • The school must provide an up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils.
  • The new style of report begins with the question: ‘What is it like to attend this school?’

The curriculum has always been important.  Every State-funded school must offer, by law, a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which:

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

The new inspection arrangements reaffirm this and also introduce the concept of ‘cultural capital’, which is derived from the aims of the national curriculum:

‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

(Section 3.1)

Given the importance of issues for schools such as promoting community cohesion, fundamental British values, and the Prevent Duty, it is vital that all pupils enjoy positive learning experiences in every phase and stage of their education. It is also vital for the health of society that every adult understands ‘cultural capital’.

The inspection process

Before the inspection

The lead inspector (LI) will spend the day before the inspection identifying the issues for inspection and formulating the inspection plan. Hopefully, this will be straightforward and readily agreed with the headteacher – if only because the new slimmer inspections only work by mining the evidence gathered by the school.

The starting point for the LI is:

  1. Is attendance an important issue for this inspection?
  2. Was it identified as a key issue in the last inspection? If yes, this must always be followed up and success or otherwise noted.
  3. What action has the school taken and how successful has this been? The LI will discuss this with the headteacher in the extended phone call and cross-check against evidence such as the self-evaluation statement (SES) and the school improvement plan (SIP).
  4. Have we been alerted to investigate attendance? The answer to this question is in the inspection data summary report (IDSR), which has been produced specifically to support the new inspection arrangements.

Inspectors will note the aspects identified as ‘areas of interest’. Absence is one of the aspects covered in the report, indicating the importance attached to this by Ofsted.

If there are no major issues to investigate, the sentences are in grey, meaning that the school did not meet the criteria, or the cohort of pupils was too small. However, the statements are graded by degree, so if a school had the sentence below, it would be identified as a major area for investigation:

‘Persistent absence (20.7%) was in the highest 20% of all schools in 2019, as well as in 2018 and 2017.’ 

Attendance analysis

The day before the inspection, the school receives an email requesting that certain information should be available for checking by 08:00 on the morning of the inspection. This includes an up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils.

An inspector must always check this analysis but unless attendance has been identified as an ‘area of interest’, it is likely to be cursory. Nevertheless, the structure and level of detail needed in this analysis is problematic for some schools. 

We know that Ofsted has adopted a new methodology for inspecting the curriculum based on a school’s ‘intent’, ‘implementation’ and ‘impact’ and this runs through the whole of the inspection handbook. For example, when evaluating behaviour and attitudes, inspectors will be:   

‘analysing absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups compared with national averages for all pupils; this includes the extent to which low attenders are improving their attendance over time and whether attendance is consistently low’

(Paragraph 213 of the Inspection handbook)

The nature and structure of the school’s analysis will be evaluated against the school’s expressed ‘intent’, as set out in its mission statement or values. 

Schools also need to do this as part of their ongoing self-evaluation of methods of ‘implementation’ and the ‘impact’ of these.

What to include

The other key to the content of the analysis is the phrase ‘up-to-date’.  The data available in the IDSR will always be out of date and depending on the timing of the inspection, it may be significantly out of date.

Therefore, the analysis should:

  • reflect the school’s aims (‘intent’)
  • reflect the characteristics of its pupils; for example, pupil group analysis depends upon the pupil groups that are in the school and their size
  • reflect the school’s priorities in the SIP; for example, the ways in which the school is trying to improve attendance, for all pupils or particular groups as appropriate (‘implementation’)
  • capture up-to-date trends and outcomes (‘impact’).

When it comes to pupil group analysis, we need to understand the levels of attendance for disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND, but picture the analysis for a small village primary school with an end of Key State 2 cohort of 9.

What is it like to attend this school?

The new style of report starts with the question: ‘What is it like to attend this school?’

Even where improving attendance is not a formal priority in the SIP, promoting good attendance is fundamental to the ethos and relationships across the school.

An Outstanding report on an Outstanding primary school began:

‘Pupils are extremely happy and love coming to school.’

In a secondary school judged Inadequate, unfortunately:

‘too many pupils do not attend school often enough.’

Even the youngest child is keenly aware if a teacher really values them.  If they feel valued, they will shake off illness to come in but if they are not inspired, they will drift away, inside the class too. 


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

Checklist – Inspection: Attendance questions and answers

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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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