Why attendance matters

Every student absence impacts achievement. Here’s how to identify at-risk students and intervene early.

why school attendance matters
Cluey Learning Monday, 11 November 2019

There are so many factors that impact student achievement — choice of school, teacher quality, the child’s interest in the subject matter, socio-ecconomic status and geographic location are all well documented aspects that influence how successful a child is at school. Because there are so many elements contributing to achievement, it is problematic to apportion how much impact each factor has on learning. 

Despite this problem it’s fair to say that, “In order to learn at school you need to be present”.  Distance education and online learning are not excluded in this proposition. In fact, a focussed digital presence may be better for some students than dealing with the myriad of distractions in the classroom.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) recently released a report which captures the trends, risks and opportunities in relation to student attendance from which this article draws heavily.

Attendance is measured in two ways

  1. Student attendance rates: the number of actual full-time equivalent student-days attended by students in Years 1 to 10 as a percentage of the total number of possible student-days.
  2. Student attendance levels: the proportion of full-time students in Years 1-10 whose attendance rate is greater than or equal to 90 percent in semester 1 of a school year

Each measure has its strengths, however the key difference is that in the attendance rate, students who attend 100% of the time minimise the impact of students with chronic absence. 

Key findings

  • The overall attendance rate in Australia is 92%, while overall attendance levels are 75%.
  • Both measures peak in mid-primary school and drop sharply in secondary school.
  • Attendance rates decrease as family location becomes more remote, or if the child is Indigenous or comes from a lower SES background.
  • Influences on achievement compound. For example, non-Indigenous students located in major cities in Year 7 have an attendance level of 80%, while children of the same age who happen to live in very remote Indigenous communities have an attendance level of 18%.

Factors that influence absence

While every context is different, there are some broad factors shown to negatively impact attendance levels, including:

  • Academic self-concept, depression, anxiety, negative attitude toward peers or teachers and a lack of sense of belonging.
  • Family factors, such as how highly education is prized in the home and the level of family involvement in things like homework.
  • School-related factors, such as the tolerance of bullying, poor teacher relationships or poor connection to peer groups.

Do a few days off really matter?

Non-attendance has both an academic and a social impact. There’s a well-documented correlation between absences and achievement, which demonstrates that every day matters. And while every day matters, there are reasons for absences which impact differently. 

To provide examples of the two extremes, a student who is absent for a week to complete in elite sports will likely be given materials in advance and the support to catch up on missed work. In contrast, a student who truants is unlikely to enjoy those same supports and, instead, may develop anxiety about returning to school. 

It’s also important to note that impacts of absenteeism are cumulative. Patterns of absence in the primary years often continue and grow in secondary school. 

Lateness is a type of absence

Just as full day absence can become pattern-forming and impact negatively on achievement, so too is lateness. While 10 minutes is not long, it’s important to consider your child’s emotional space as they enter the classroom. A child who arrives during assembly has no time to mentally prepare themselves for the day. Indeed the stress of traffic congestion may well impact them for some time into their first lesson of the day. In the primary context this is often reading and writing. Just as adults require time and space to read and write well, children deserve the same conditions. 

Lateness is also cumulative. If a child is late by only 10 minutes a few times a week, the hours soon add up. In a single year there are 20 hours of learning missed and, as suggested earlier, the most important learning of the day is often scheduled first in a primary school. Assuming the same pattern throughout primary school, that’s the equivalent of 28 full days of premium class time. 

What happens when there’s a pattern of chronic absence?

School leaders monitor attendance patterns regularly. Students who begin to show signs of chronic absence require early and effective intervention. 

When patterns become more significant and imbedded, each education authority will have formal policies and processes to deal with students. These actions can include meetings, engagement with counsellors or mental health professionals and reports to relevant family and community services departments. 

In the academic domain, relevant qualifications are placed in jeopardy, such as the HSC in New South Wales or the VCE in Victoria. While the age for compulsory schooling varies between states, it is the legal responsibility of the parents to have children engaged in school.

What can I do to help absent students?

Parents Teachers / support staff Parent / school partnership
  • Set positive attendance habits early.
  • Reach out to the school when you no longer feel in control.
  • Set high expectations for your child and do your best to model them in your own life.
  • Create a welcoming environment for all students.
  • Encourage parents to reach out as partners in the education process.
  • Be vigilant for emerging patterns.
  • Identify students at risk and intervene early.
  • Acknowledge the challenge and seek positive interventions to resolve the situation.
  • Never put blame on the other partner or the child.

In short, there is no safe level of absenteeism — every absence impacts achievement. Building and maintaining positive attendance patterns is a three way partnership between students, parents and schools, where all parties hold an important piece of the puzzle. 

When things begin to deviate from the ideal, all three parties need to work together in a “no blame culture” to resolve the underlying causes and return the child to class as soon as possible.


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