Proving a link between attendance and attainment

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Recent DfE research has given a clear view of the connection between attendance and pupils’ attainment. Tony Powell explains.

Summary

  • There is a strong negative link between absence and attainment.
  • Pupil characteristics are likely to impact on attendance and attainment.
  • Pupils also have overlapping characteristics.

Introduction

The most obvious factor impacting on pupils’ achievement is attendance. One secondary school I know has the motto ‘We are Here to Learn’, the obvious implication that being in school is the first step towards learning.

The best way to appreciate this at a national level is by comparing the absence and achievement rates of ethnic groups:

  • In 2014, 14% of pupils from the Travellers of Irish Heritage group attained 5+A*-C (including English and maths). Their persistent absence (PA) rate was 44.6%.
  • The respective averages for Chinese pupils were 74% 5+A*-C (including English and maths) and a PA of 1.0%.

In February 2015, the DfE published the latest research data showing the link between absence and attainment, in a report entitled The link between absence and attainment at KS2 and KS4.

The findings

The report is an update of earlier extensive research into patterns and the impact of absence on attainment in the 2009/10 academic year. The earlier report showed that pupils who had never been classified as PAs over the KS2 period were twice as likely to achieve level 4 or above as pupils who were PAs for each of the four KS2 years.

At KS4, non-PA pupils were four times more likely to achieve 5+ A*-C grades in GCSE (and equivalents), including English and maths, as PA pupils. Unsurprisingly, the strong link between attainment and absence is confirmed by this latest research.

Key Stage 2

Pupils with no absence across the key stage are 1.6 times more likely to achieve L4 or above, and 4.7 times more likely to achieve level 5 or above, than pupils who have missed 15-20% of all sessions. The relationship between absence and KS2 attainment remained similar over the past five academic years. In cases where absence was above 20%, the numbers involved are very small and any conclusions are highly volatile.

Translated into pass rates, this means that 92.3% of pupils with nil absence attained L4+ in reading and maths, while 50.7% attained L5+. The respective rates for pupils with 15-20% absence were 59% and 10.7%.

Key Stage 4

In KS4, attainment was calculated for the number of pupils achieving 5+ GCSEs A*-C or equivalent, 5+ GCSEs A*-C or equivalent, including English and maths GCSEs, and those achieving the English Baccalaureate.

Taking just the headline rate of 5+A*-C or equivalent, including English and maths, pupils with no absence are 2.8 times more likely to achieve 5+ GCSEs A*-C or equivalent, including English and maths, than pupils missing 15-20% of KS4 lessons. This means that 81.7% of the pupils with the highest attendance achieved these qualifications, against 28.9% in the 15-20% absence band. The relationship between absence and KS4 attainment remained similar over the past five academic years. Above 30% absence, the numbers are so small that any findings are very tentative.

Other findings

Many other factors, such as gender, special needs, free school meals (FSM) and ethnicity can impact on attainment. Even when contextual value added was taken into account, the Fischer Family Trust calculated that this only took into account about 50% of the variables.

The good news is that PA is decreasing. In 2008-2009, PA in primary schools was 4.6%; by 2012-2013 this had fallen to 3.0%. The figures for secondary schools were 10.2% and 6.4% in the same periods.

The following issues need to be taken into account when evaluating attendance. For example, if all other factors are taken as equal, a school with high levels of FSM will have lower attendance than another with low FSM.

Age

In 2012-2013, the level of PA in secondary schools (6.4%) was more than twice that in primary schools (3%). The percentage of the school population who were persistent absentees was 9.0% or lower in 97.5% of state-funded primary schools, compared to 82.4% of state-funded secondary schools. Within secondary schools, absenteeism increases with age so that the rate of overall absence for pupils in Year 11 was 1.4 times the rate of overall absence for pupils in Year 7.

Poverty

Overall absence for FSM pupils was 7.6% compared to 4.7% for non-FSM pupils. Also, the rate of overall absence for pupils living in the most deprived areas was 1.5 times higher than for pupils living in the least deprived areas.

Special needs

The overall absence rate for pupils with a statement for SEN was 8.2% against 4.8% for non-SEN, and the PA rate was three times higher.

Ethnic groups

The overall absence rates for Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/Roma ethnic groups was 21.4% and 15.3% respectively, while the overall absence rates for pupils of Chinese and Black-African ethnicity were substantially lower than the national average, at 3.1% and 3.2%, respectively.

We can speculate for pupils with overlapping characteristics, such as boys who had special needs and were also entitled to receive FSM.

The impact is measurable

As the DfE report demonstrates, the direct impact of absence is measurable.

The indirect impact is equally pernicious but not quantifiable. This is the impact of not attending school because education is not valued by parents, which in turn is passed on to their children. This is not necessarily universal; indeed, many pupils who are persistently absent enjoy school and try their best when they do attend. However, many others also have poor attitudes to learning and, at worst, are badly behaved and disruptive.

This is perhaps not surprising, since PAs are more likely to come from lone parent households or households with no parents, or from households where the principal adult or adults are not in any form of current employment. At the same time, evidence suggests that PAs are more likely to be bullied, excluded from school and be involved in risky behaviours.

Further information

About the author

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: anthony.powell@blueyonder.co.uk.

First published on this website in June 2015. 

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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: anthony.powell@blueyonder.co.uk.

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