Why school attendance really matters for social mobility

By Caroline Sharp

Thursday 21 March 2019

A few years ago, I worked on a research project focusing on how schools could best support pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It aimed to identify the characteristics of schools associated with higher and lower attainment and progress, as well as school strategies to support disadvantaged pupils and to find out what really makes the difference.

We found a number of approaches and strategies that were typical of ‘more effective’ schools (i.e. those where disadvantaged pupils made greater progress) and our report set out a series of ‘pathways’ to suggest how schools could become more successful over time. We were hopeful that schools would find this helpful and the performance gap would continue to close over time.

A few years down the road, we have to acknowledge that despite the policy focus on this area and the continuation of pupil premium funding, early progress in closing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in secondary schools has not been sustained.

This was why I was pleased to hear that my colleague, Zoe Claymore, wanted to repeat some of our original analysis as part of her graduate research project using the most recent data. She also planned to improve on it, by carrying out an analysis of the characteristics associated with higher attainment and progress of disadvantaged pupils at pupil, rather than school level. This meant that whereas the previous research looked at the relative influence of a range of school-level characteristics such as a school’s level of attendance or the proportion of pupils in the school with special educational needs, Zoe’s research looked at the relationship between school and pupil characteristics and the attainment and progress of individual pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our previous research had identified that schools with lower attendance were associated with lower attainment and progress among disadvantaged pupils. This was one of several such associations we identified at school level, including the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, the proportion of pupils from white British backgrounds, the size and location of the school.

Interestingly, Zoe’s research found that most of the difference in pupils’ Attainment 8 scores was found within schools (around 90 per cent) rather than between schools (around ten per cent), suggesting that individual differences between pupils are particularly influential. This links with the finding from our previous research that ‘more effective’ schools treat pupils as individuals, rather than providing a set of interventions to support disadvantaged pupils’ attainment and expecting all disadvantaged pupils to benefit. 

The new research found that poor attendance, exclusion and moving schools during the GCSE years is much more common among disadvantaged pupils. These factors also have a strong negative relationship with disadvantaged pupils’ attainment and progress.  In the case of attendance and movement, the analysis also shows that there is an additional ‘cohort effect’. This suggests that moving schools and poor attendance affect pupils in two ways: first a pupil’s attendance and movement affects their own performance. Secondly, the attendance and movement of other pupils in the same school appears to have an additional impact on their grades.

Of course, it’s very difficult to know whether attendance, exclusion or moving school are causes or symptoms of poor attainment (quite likely both) but it does bring home the fundamental importance of these indicators. All the more so, when you consider that the negative association between these factors and Attainment 8 outcomes is stronger for disadvantaged pupils than for their peers. So what should schools do about it? My advice would be to focus attention and resources on addressing the causes of poor attendance, reducing the need for exclusion and improving transitions for pupils moving schools. This isn’t just about schools, because the wider community and other services need to play their part in supporting disadvantaged children and their families. Nevertheless, the truth is that unless pupils are present and settled at school, they are unlikely to learn.

Caroline Sharp is a Research Director and our Social Mobility lead. To find out more about our work in this key area visit: http://www.nfer.ac.uk/key-topics-expertise/social-mobility/