Reducing persistent absence


In this article, we look at how to identify cases of persistent absence, how to assess why it might be occurring and what interventions can be made to support the pupil in improving attendance over time.


  • A PA pupil’s absences may be authorised, unauthorised or a combination of both.
  • PA data should be compiled by a consistent tracking system and followed up with an assessment which is shared with the pupil, parents and relevant school staff.
  • Home-school links with parents and carers are essential.
  • When planning to reduce persistent absence, as well as individuals, it is also important to take a strategic view and consider group-level interventions.

Understanding persistent absence

The concept of persistent absence (PA) as a key measure for school absence was first introduced in the 2005/06 academic year. The rationale behind the measure was to move away from a focus solely on unauthorised absence, with research identifying that:

  • there had been a reluctance or failure in some schools to challenge concerning patterns of authorised absence
  • all absence from school will impact on attainment and progress, and concerning levels of absence should be investigated
  • schools should take steps to reduce PA.

When first introduced, the PA threshold was any pupil enrolment with 20% or more absence. This was calculated on a standard measure of a set number of absent sessions a term/academic year. Since 2005/06, there have been changes to both the threshold and how the calculation is made. Since 2015/16, the threshold for persistent absenceis when a pupil enrolment’s overall absence equates to 10% or more of theirpossible sessions (not a standard measure).

A PA pupil’s absences may be authorised absences, unauthorised absences or a combination of both.

PA figures are published as a percentage of the whole population. For example, for a whole school, the calculation is the number of PA enrolments divided by the number of pupil enrolments for the school, multiplied by 100. The same calculation is used to identify the PA level of certain groups. For example, for pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), the calculation is the number of pupil enrolments eligible for FSM, divided by the number of FSM enrolments, multiplied by 100.

It is important to note that, like all other absence data, PA data is published by:

  • enrolments, not pupils (any pupil who was PA for the period of enrolment is included, even if they have since left the setting/are no longer on roll)
  • pupils who were statutory school age at the start of the academic year (Years 1 to 11).

PA data doesn’t include data for the sixth half term for Year 11 pupils.

Reducing persistent absence

The first stage in successfully reducing levels of persistent absence is identifying pupils/groups of pupils who are persistently absent or are at risk of becoming persistently absent.

It is essential to have a consistent tracking and monitoring system for the attendance of all pupils. A system that enables you to identify at regular intervals those children who are PA or at risk of becoming PA.

A good tracking system will include attendance from the previous academic year for all children. It will highlight those pupils who were PA at the end of the previous academic year. This can be used as a starting point for identifying concerns during the first half term and provides some historical context for considering concerns. Where the pupil is new to the school, attendance information for previous schools/settings should be requested and included.

A good tracking system will allow you to record any actions undertaken, review the impact of these and prevent any drift between interventions and decision-making.

Attendance targeting and tracking should also be undertaken at a group level to identify any groups with particularly high levels of PA.

Understanding the reasons for and planning interventions to reduce persistent absence

The reasons for persistent absence are varied and may be complex. Some children who are PA will be so for reasons that are unavoidable/justifiable, such as an operation/medical treatment. Their attendance may not improve above PA for the current academic year. The focus for these PA pupils is on meeting their academic and pastoral needs. For other PA pupils, there may be a clear, single reason for their absences, such as periods of exclusion from school or unauthorised leaves of absence, and an appropriate response/school procedure should be followed.

For cases where there isn’t a clear single reason for poor attendance, there should be an assessment of the issues impacting on the child’s absence so that the appropriate interventions can be put into place.

This assessment should take into account what is known about:

  • the reasons for the child’s absence
  • the pattern of absence, including length and frequency of absence,andvolume of authorised and unauthorised absence
  • levels of parent and pupil engagement, communication and co-operation
  • any actions undertaken and the impact of these.

The assessment should result in a written action plan that is shared with the parents, pupil and relevant school staff and reviewed. The assessment will inform the decision-making process and ensure that interventions that are put in place are appropriate and the most effective.

The focus on persistent absence should be part of an escalating process that is embedded in school policy and procedures, led by senior leaders and understood by all of the school community, staff, pupils and parents.

Interventions to reduce persistent absence

Effective early interventions to reduce persistent absence include:

  • use of attendance targeting letters that make parents aware that pupils have become PA, or are at risk of becoming PA, and what is expected
  • early meetings with parents and pupils when concerns first emerge to discuss concerns and agree actions to improve attendance
  • documented conversations with parents and pupils that agree actions
  • use of formal attendance panels, including members of the senior leadership team
  • home visits
  • communicating with parents when agreed plans to improve attendance are failing.

In more complex and longer-term cases of poor attendance and persistent absence, interventions may include:

  • multi-agency meetings and actions plans
  • requesting medical information or information from other services
  • use of local authority enforcement processes and procedures
  • home visiting
  • direct work with children and parents to address root causes of absence
  • engaging specialist services
  • considering options for provision.

One group of children who may be persistently absent are children who have long-term absence due to illness. In these cases, it is important to maintain a home-school link with parents and carers and to seek consent to liaise directly with medical professionals to ensure that you are able to offer appropriate support and access to education.

Some best practice includes:

  • explaining to parents and pupils why you need their consent to access medical information to access appropriate support and services
  • using a form to record consent
  • ensuring you have the details of the relevant medical professionals involved
  • writing clear letters requesting information and explaining why you need this information and enclosing a copy of the consent form
  • where possible, using existing protocols for care plans and links with school medical services such as a school nurse as a mechanism for sharing information
  • arranging multi-agency meetings, including medical professionals
  • keeping in regular contact with parents and pupils
  • ensuring that you understand the arrangements in your local area for children who are unable to attend school due to health needs
  • ensuring that information received is scrutinised and validated.

Another group of children who may be persistently absent are those whose absences are considered as due to school refusal. This is a broad term that is often used to encapsulate a range of issues that cause long-term non-attendance where a presenting characteristic is the pupil ‘refusing to attend school’. This can include children affected by, among other things, transitions, anxiety, separation or attachment issues. It also includes children who are masking underlying issues within the school, such as bullying, or issues outside school, such as being a young carer or witnessing domestic abuse.

Some best practice suggestions for addressing school refusal include:

  • being alert to early warning signs and patterns
  • undertaking a PA assessment
  • meeting with parents and pupil to agree an action plan
  • formalising this plan
  • considering small steps with regular reviews and clear timescales for review
  • developing strategies to manage anxiety
  • undertaking risk assessment where there are concerns that pupils will abscond from school/go missing/have altercations with parents/staff
  • identifying a key person/people for the child and the parent
  • setting clear expectations and measures of engagement
  • considering what resources are needed, such as a safe space, identified member of staff, time to try and engage with the pupil, and specialist services.

Often schools focus on the needs of individual PA pupils, but when planning interventions to reduce persistent absence, it is also important to take a strategic view and consider group-level interventions.

If you can identify groups of pupils in school with higher than national average levels of PA, then it is important to try to understand why. Explore the reasons for the PA levels of the pupils within that group and identify any common trends or themes. It is then possible to consider if resources can be deployed to meet the needs of groups of pupils in a more effective way. This will also help you identify any skill gaps or training needs for staff to be able address these issues, or the need to link with other organisations.  It’s is also an opportunity to consider how pupil premium funding can be used to make a difference and reduce PA.

For example, a school identified that within its pupils with SEN, there was a higher than average level of PA. Further analysis identified a group of pupils who had exhibited some anxiety when coming into school from home, which sometimes prevented them from attending. An appropriate intervention would be a facilitated meet and greet for this particular group of pupils, allowing a managed transition into school.

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About Author


Editor Claire McDermot is the Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine and has worked in B2B publishing for over 10 years. Claire is a freelance editor and can be contacted on:

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