Understanding attendance: A review of the drivers of school attendance and best practice approaches

This report was originally published 10 June 2022.

Key findings

Chapter 1: What is attendance and non-attendance and why does it matter?

School attendance impacts students’ academic achievement and other long-term outcomes
  • Non-attendance is linked with poorer academic achievement and long-term student outcomes.
    • Higher rates of absences have been associated with lower NAPLAN scores (Hancock et al. 2013; Daraganova et al. 2014).
    • The association between absences and achievement is stronger among students in disadvantaged schools (Hancock et al. 2013).
    • Unauthorised absences have a greater impact on achievement than authorised absences (Hancock et al. 2013; Gershenson et al. 2017).
    • In NSW, students who report positive attendance behaviours in Year 7 are on average 3 months ahead in their learning by Year 9, compared with students who have poor attendance behaviours (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) 2017).
The effect of attendance behaviours in Year 7 on Year 9 NAPLAN reading scores (CESE 2017:6)
Figure illustrating the difference between Student A, who is at school attending lessons, and Student B, who regularly misses lessons. Compared to Student B, Student A is 4.9 points ahead in NAPLAN Year 9 reading, which corresponds to 3 months of learning.
  • Students’ prior attendance is a strong predictor of their future attendance. A student’s attendance patterns may be established in early primary school, with school readiness being an important protective factor.
  • Students with chronic absenteeism are more likely to drop out of school and experience poorer long-term health and social outcomes.

Chapter 2: What influences school attendance?

Attendance is driven by a complex range of factors inside and outside of school
  • School attendance is influenced by a complex range of factors relating to the individual student’s engagement and wellbeing, their family and community context, and the school (for example, Kearney 2020; Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) 2021; Childs and Lofton 2021).
  • Factors influencing attendance are not mutually exclusive. Students may have several interrelated factors driving their attendance, or multiple barriers to attending school that stem from a shared root cause.
  • School-related drivers of attendance are factors relating to a school’s academic climate, social climate, safety and institutional environment.
New longitudinal research among NSW secondary school students shows that student engagement and wellbeing, as well as teaching practices, help to predict attendance
  • Homework behaviour, positive behaviour at school and sense of belonging are relatively strong predictors of attendance.
  • The engagement and wellbeing effects are stronger for students with lower attendance.
  • For students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, homework behaviour and sense of belonging are stronger predictors of attendance than for students from other backgrounds.
  • For younger Aboriginal secondary students, wellbeing is particularly important.
  • For older Aboriginal students, teachers’ high expectations are particularly important.
  • Teaching practices indirectly affect attendance by influencing engagement and wellbeing.
Effective teaching practices affect attendance via student engagement and wellbeing
Flow chart illustrating the indirect pathways between high expectations, advocacy at school and positive learning and attendance via positive behaviour at school, homework behaviour and sense of belonging, described in Finding 6.

Note. Earlier longitudinal analysis of NSW Tell Them From Me data showed that drivers of sense of belonging include positive teacher–student relations, teaching relevance, valuing school outcomes, positive friendships, absence of bullying, optimism and positive self-concept, co-curricular participation as well as high levels of effort, interest and motivation (refer to CESE 2020e).

Chapter 3: What can schools do to improve attendance?

Evidence-based strategies for improving school attendance are framed in a tiered model of prevention and intervention
  • A tiered model of support takes a multi-faceted approach to prevention and intervention strategies for improving attendance that recognises the complexity of non-attendance problems and the need to tailor interventions to each school’s context (Kearney 2021).
A multi-tiered system of support for strategies to address school non-attendance
Figure illustrating a multi-tiered system of support in the following three tiers. Tier 1, Universal prevention strategies for all students, to promote a positive culture of attendance and prevent absenteeism. Tier 2, Early intervention or secondary prevention strategies to address emerging attendance problems and mild to moderate absenteeism. Tier 3, Intensive intervention for individual students with severe and chronic attendance problems and complex barriers to attendance.
Universal prevention strategies aim to foster a positive school culture of attendance for all students
  • Strategies for establishing and sustaining a positive attendance culture in schools draw from the research literature on the relationships between attendance and aspects of student engagement and school climate (Epstein and Sheldon 2002; Railsback 2004; Stone and Stone 2011; Van Eck et al. 2017; Karlberg et al. 2020). Strategies include:
    • using effective classroom management and motivating learning goals
    • setting clear standards and high expectations for attendance
    • increasing family engagement with the school
    • promoting positive relationships between teachers and students
    • promoting connectedness and belonging
    • implementing an anti-bullying plan
    • ensuring cultural safety.

Early intervention strategies and intensive intervention strategies should be matched to students’ needs and the root causes of non-attendance

  • Targeted intervention and prevention strategies are intended for smaller groups of students or individual students. It is important to match strategies to students’ needs by identifying the root causes of non-attendance for the targeted students and then selecting the appropriate strategies (Hanover Research 2016; Kearney et al. 2019).
  • Successful strategies often involve a multi-faceted program rather than a single isolated practice, particularly for students experiencing severe absenteeism with complex causes. These often rely on coordinated efforts across multiple service providers and partnerships with the student’s family members (Kearney et al. 2019).
  • Few interventions have well-implemented experimental research studies to evaluate their effectiveness. However, other forms of evidence suggest promising positive effects for several types of targeted interventions:
    • meal programs such as breakfast clubs (MacDonald 2018)
    • school-located flu vaccination programs (Hull and Ambrose 2011; Keck et al. 2013; Pannaraj et al. 2014)
    • improving transport access (Fan and Das 2015; Gottfried 2017)
    • mentoring programs such as Check and Connect (Guryan et al. 2017).
  • Among studies that are able to show strong evidence of positive effects on attendance, the interventions commonly involve one or more of the following elements (Freeman et al. 2019):
    • individualised training in personal and social capabilities
    • active participation of family members
    • incentive-based strategies that are carefully designed to target sustainable, long-term behaviour change.

Chapter 4: What do schools require to improve attendance?

Improving attendance in schools relies on adequate resourcing and other system supports
  • Key enablers for successful implementation of attendance improvement strategies in schools include leadership, actionable data, community engagement and shared accountability (Louis et al. 2010; Reid 2012; Graczyk and Kearney 2014; Balu et al. 2016; Dreise et al. 2016).
  • The enablers are an integrated set of conditions for sustainable implementation, rather than isolated factors. They require adequate resourcing and capability building for sustainable implementation.
Figure of three concentric circles showing the layers of a positive attendance culture in schools. The innermost circle represents students and families at the centre. The middle is the aspects of a schools attendance culture - academic climate, social climate, institutional environment, and safety. The outer circle is the system level enablers - leadership, actionable data, community engagement and shared accountability. Arrows indicate two key requirements at the system level - capability building and adequate resourcing.
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