Effects of COVID-19 on attendance during Semester 1 2020

This factsheet was originally published 14 September 2021.

Image: Effects of COVID-19 on attendance during Semester 1 2020

Read online


This factsheet provides an overview of 2020 Semester 1 student attendance data at NSW government schools. Semester 1 attendance data for students in Years 1 to 10 is a key performance measure for both national and local reporting. In particular many NSW government schools have targets to increase the proportion of students attending 90% or more of the time.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that NSW student attendance data in Semester 1 2020 is not comparable to previous years. The NSW Government encouraged students to learn from home, where possible, for a seven week period from 24 March to 22 May. During this period, schools monitored engagement with learning to determine whether students should be marked present. This changed the definition of the attendance measure which traditionally only requires attendance at school premises for marking students present.

There was also some evidence of varied marking practices as schools adjusted to the learning from home period, with some schools recording higher attendance rates while others recorded markedly lower rates.

This factsheet shows the variation in attendance reported by schools to explain why Semester 1 2020 data is a break in series and should not be compared to previous years.

Summary of attendance rates

Figure 1 shows attendance rates for primary and secondary students for the last three years. On initial analysis the overall 2020 Semester 1 attendance rate appeared to be stable, only changing by 0.1 percentage point from 91.1% to 91.0%. However this small change masks significant variation between primary and secondary attendance rates. As the chart shows, primary attendance fell by 1.0 percentage points from 92.8% to 91.8% while secondary attendance rose by 1.3 percentage points to 88.2% to 89.5%. This level of variation is 5 to 7 times greater than the average year-on-year variation observed for primary or secondary in previous years when a consistent methodology was used to calculate attendance rates.

For more information on previous years’ attendance data visit ‘Government school student attendance bulletin (2012-2019)’ on the datahub.

Image: Figure 1: 2018-2020 Semester 1 attendance rate by education level

Attendance by scholastic year

There are two key measures of attendance which are usually reported on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) My School website and are used to assess school and system performance. These are the attendance rate for students in Years 1 to 10 and the proportion of students attending 90% or more of the time (attendance level). The attendance level 4 Effects of COVID-19 on attendance during Semester 1 2020: Factsheet measure was introduced nationally in 2015 to help identify and support cohorts of students with lower attendance. NSW government schools have reported the attendance level since 2018.

In 2020, during the learning from home period at the end of Term 1 and beginning of Term 2, schools were advised to mark students absent if they did not engage with learning. Schools varied in their method of delivering remote learning and also in their interpretation of attendance marking guidance.

Some schools provided written workbooks, especially for younger students, while other schools delivered learning through online platforms such as Google Classrooms, Seesaw or Zoom. The department provided support and resources for schools to assist with remote learning.

Figure 2 presents both attendance rates and attendance levels for each scholastic year. Primary attendance rates and levels were consistently lower for all years (Years 1 to 6) in 2020 compared to 2019, while secondary attendance rates and levels (Years 7 to 10) were consistently higher. These results show a clear difference between primary and secondary students in the effect of COVID-19 on attendance marking.

The overall Semester 1 attendance level decreased by 1.6 percentage points from 73.0% in 2019 to 71.4% in 2020. The primary attendance level decreased by 4.9 percentage points from 78.5% to 73.6% while the secondary attendance level increased by 3.6 percentage points from 64.0% to 67.6%.

Image: Figure 2: 2019-2020 Semester 1 attendance by scholastic year

Attendance rates during the learning from home period

Table 1 provides further evidence of the effect of COVID-19 on 2020 Semester 1 attendance rates. It shows that the attendance rate during the seven week learning from home period was far higher than during the face to face teaching period. Secondary attendance was reported as 7.0 percentage points higher during the learning from home period, significantly more than primary attendance (1.7 percentage points).

Table 1: 2020 Semester 1 attendance rates during learning from home period
During learning from home Excluding learning from home Difference
Primary (Years 1-6) 93.0% 91.3% + 1.7 pp
Secondary (Years 7-10) 94.4% 87.4% + 7.0 pp
Total (Years 1-10) 93.5% 89.8% + 3.7 pp

The learning from home period spanned Term 1 Weeks 9 to 11 (23 March to 9 April) to Term 2 Weeks 1 to 4 (29 April to 22 May). All other days in Semester 1 are counted in the ‘excluding learning from home’ column.

Variation in attendance rates across schools

Figures 3 and 4 shows that the school level attendance rate change between 2019 and 2020 was much more variable than previous years.

  • A total of 1,169 schools saw a rise in their attendance rate. Out of those 819 were primary schools, 307 were secondary schools and 43 were central/community schools.
  • 880 schools saw a fall in attendance, of those 780 were primary, 78 were secondary and 22 were central/community.
  • 58 schools recorded an attendance rate increase of 5 percentage points or more, while 135 schools recorded an attendance rate decrease of 5 percentage points or more.
Image: Figure 3: 2019-2020 Semester 1 attendance at primary schools
Image: Figure 4: 2019-2020 Semester 1 attendance at secondary schools

Aboriginal attendance rates

Attendance rate trends for Aboriginal students for 2019 to 2020 largely followed the pattern for all students, with the headline Aboriginal attendance rate staying relatively steady at 84.4%. Aboriginal attendance for primary students fell by 1.6 percentage points from 88.5% to 86.9% and secondary attendance rose by 3.2 percentage points from 77.5% to 80.7%.

The overall Aboriginal attendance level (proportion of students attending 90% or more of the time) fell by 3.1 percentage points from 51.9% to 48.8%. The attendance level for Aboriginal primary students fell by 5.9 percentage points from 60.7% to 54.8% and secondary rose by 4.7 percentage points from 38.0% to 42.7%.

Table 2: 2020 Semester 1 Aboriginal attendance data

Attendance rates

Attendance level

2019 2020 change 2019 2020 change
Primary (Years 1-6) 88.5% 86.9% - 1.6 pp 60.7% 54.8% - 5.9 pp
Secondary (Years 7-10) 77.5% 80.7% + 3.2 pp 38.0% 42.7% +4.7 pp
Total (Years 1-10) 84.2% 84.4% + 0.2 pp 51.9% 48.8% - 3.1 pp

Impact on selected student cohorts

There were specific cohorts of students with particularly large changes in attendance rates or levels between 2019 and 2020:

  • Year 10 Aboriginal student attendance rate increased by 4.5 percentage points compared with a 2.0 percentage point increase for non-Aboriginal students.
  • Year 8 remote attendance rate increased by 10.0 percentage points compared with a 1.3 percentage point increase for Year 8 students in major cities.
  • Year 10 female remote attendance rate increased by 9.8 percentage points compared with a 2.1 percentage point increase for Year 10 students in major cities.


Semester 1 2020 attendance data should be interpreted with caution and is not comparable to previous years. The apparent stability of the state attendance rate masks opposite trends in primary and secondary rates. In addition, the variation in attendance rates is not uniform across contexts, with certain cohorts particularly affected. There is evidence that this variation is partially due to differences in attendance marking across schools during the learning from home period.


  • Educational data
  • Statistical

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
Return to top of page Back to top