Jun 29

Does Poor Attendance Impact on Student Learning?

A register is taken at each and every class a student attends, but does poor attendance really make a difference if a student misses lessons due to a short illness, the dentist or a doctor’s appointment? Or even more controversially, a family holiday?

Absence from lessons raises a host of questions including where the responsibility lies between the teaching and learning cycles of activity. Educational institutions, authorities and governments set policies and strategies in an attempt to encourage students to attend throughout each academic year.

But the one question that does not factor in still remains; Does attendance or the lack of – in this case, poor attendance – really have that much of an impact on a student’s achievement?

Obviously, a student whom for whatever reason, has long term absences from classes will eventually lack access to teaching, which invariably has a knock-on effect on their learning. But what about odd days and weeks spread across the academic year? Does that really matter in terms of long term achievement goals?

In March 2016 the Department for Education (DfE) published a report on the link between absence and attainment in Key Stages 2 and 4. The findings for both Key Stages show that in general, the higher the absence rate, the lower the likely level of attainment. The report states that at Key Stage 2:
‘… pupils with no absence are 1.3 times more likely to achieve level 4 or above, and 3.1 times more likely to achieve level 5 or above, than pupils that missed 10-15 per cent of all sessions.’

At KS4 the study reports that:
‘… pupils with no absence are 2.2 times more likely to achieve 5+ GCSEs A*-C or equivalent and 2.8 times more likely to achieve 5+ GCSEs A*-C or equivalent including English and mathematics, than pupils missing 15-20% of Key Stage 4 lessons.’

The report also highlights that 73% of pupils who have over 95% attendance achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C and explains that pupils with persistent absences are less likely to attain at school, and – very importantly in terms of the future of the UK workforce – are unlikely stay in education after the age of 16 years.

All this is a fairly well trodden path for experienced educationalists. However, a report from Warwick University looked into the attendance of economics undergraduates and there were some surprising results. The study found some very expected and stereotypical outcomes which included:

  • morning classes have a high rate of absenteeism – especially 9.00am classes
  • female students miss fewer classes than male students
  • overseas students miss more classes than home (European Union) students.

Interestingly, they also found:

  • missing classes has an adverse effect, but only for ‘high ability’ students, and missing 10% of classes was associated with a 1-2 percentage point lower mark for this group of students
  • students who have performed well in their first year tend to have lower absenteeism rates in their second year.

Even accounting for the discrepancy between the two widely differing age groups these last two points seems to present a new twist in the importance of attendance in education. It is very often assumed that more able students can catch up if they miss lessons and the importance of poor attendance is focused on the less able students.

This would appear to be too simplistic.

All students need to be reminded of the link between attendance and achievement and the argument that bright students can miss a little time may not, upon closer scrutiny, hold. The point which references student attendance as more likely when the student has performed well in the first year of study is also significant. To conclude that success builds confidence, which leads to a greater commitment to achieve further, would seem to be quite probable.

Still, there are students who struggle to achieve a good attendance record; irrespective of all the research into the importance of attendance, statistical evidence to support the negative impact of missing lessons and numerous institutional initiatives to engage students in their own learning.

This is where classroom teachers and tutors can make a real difference.

Whether you are teaching a class or supporting a student on a one-to-one basis, young people need to know that you really care and believe in their potential for success and achievement. Planning for students’ success; delivering interesting, engaging and varied lessons and creating a ‘can do’ environment, does go a long way towards ensuring students keep turning up.

Coupled with a sympathetic but firm ‘nowhere to hide’ determination to curb absenteeism, your efforts will eventually pay off – even more so where institutional initiatives may have failed!

Claudia Kelly is Fleet Tutors’ Education Programme Leader and educationalist, whose extensive experience also spans teaching GSCE English.

Links to in-text report references