School attendance is a pivotal factor in a student’s overall development and future success. Yet across the country school attendance has dropped significantly – why is this and what can we do to reverse this trend?
The situation then and now
In 2016, figures from the Department of Education revealed overall absence for both primary and secondary schools had dropped from 4.7% to 4.4% of sessions (either morning or afternoon). This was the highest school attendance record in a decade.
Six years later and government figures reveal over the 2022/23 academic year more than a fifth (22.3%) of pupils in England were persistently absent, i.e missing at least 10% of their school sessions.
What changed? The subject is far too complex to have a sole cause, but it’s obvious the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on children and their school attendance. A study by consultancy Public First discovered there has been a massive shift in parents’ attitudes towards school attendance since the lockdowns, with a significant proportion choosing to take their children on holiday in term time. It also revealed these breaks are now being seen as socially acceptable. In its conclusion the report states: “Pre-Covid, ensuring your child’s daily attendance at school was seen as a fundamental element of good parenting. Post-Covid, parents no longer felt that to be the case, and instead view attending school as one of several – often competing – options or demands on their child on a daily basis, against a backdrop of a more holistic approach to daily life.”
Head of Ofsted, Amanda Speilman, noted in her final annual report that the pandemic had ‘left a troublesome legacy’, which is partly shown in lower attendance numbers.
Health issues, both physical and mental, are also exacting a heavy toll on attendance. Illness was the main cause of absence amongst pupils (and staff) in 2023, and much of this can be linked directly or indirectly to Covid.
The Benefits of Regular Attendance
One of the primary advantages of regular school attendance is academic success. Students who attend school consistently are more likely to stay on track with their studies, grasp key concepts, and excel in examinations. The continuity of learning that consistent attendance provides is fundamental for academic achievement.
Data from 2019 shows that 84% of pupils in Key Stage 2 who had 100% attendance achieved the expected standard, while only 40% of pupils who were persistently absent managed to hit their target.
The pattern repeats at secondary school. Pupils who didn’t achieve a grade of 4 to 9 in maths and English on average had missed 10 more days over the key stage than those students who achieved grade 9 to 5 in both maths and English. It’s estimated that just 17 missed school days per year will result in a drop in GCSE grade.
Beyond academic results, school is also a crucial environment for social and emotional development. Regular attendance allows students to form lasting friendships, engage in extracurricular activities, and develop the essential interpersonal skills they’ll need in adult life.
School attendance also instils discipline and a sense of responsibility in students, qualities that are invaluable for future success. Employers often seek people who demonstrate reliability and commitment—traits that are cultivated through consistent attendance from an early age.
Strategies to Improve Attendance
Implementing effective strategies to improve attendance requires a comprehensive whole-school approach that addresses the root causes. However, it’s key to treat each case individually, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Focus on Success
Because students are less likely to attend school if they find lessons unengaging and irrelevant, we take great efforts across Paradigm Trust to teach in a way that results in students feeling they are doing something worthwhile, but also secure enough that they feel safe. This feeling of achievement then helps them become more engaged in lessons. The methods we use to do this are continually reviewed in all our schools to find ways we can refine and improve, which are then shared across the Trust.
Parents play a crucial role in ensuring their children attend school regularly. We promote parental involvement through regular communication, parent-teacher meetings, and highlighting the importance of attendance for their child’s future. In some cases we have found it beneficial to help set up a timetable for the home, and found offering to collect pupils from their home in extenuating circumstances to be effective in supporting families to break some of those barriers to good attendance.
Early Intervention and Support
Identifying attendance issues early on is essential for effective intervention. Paradigm goes to great lengths to establish a supportive environment in all its schools where students feel comfortable discussing their challenges can lead to early intervention and prevent prolonged absences.
This can take many forms, such as a large pastoral team as at Ipswich Academy, our secondary school in Suffolk; or Home School Support Workers and Attendance Teams as at Culloden Primary Academy in East London. School nurses provide another contact point for children struggling with issues that restrict their attendance, or there may be other avenues to take, such as bringing in external agencies. Paradigm’s London schools for example are working with external Impact Ed. to try and address the core issues behind poor attendance.
Communication is also key to understanding and taking effective action. Old Ford Primary Academy has recently surveyed pupils and parents, and is now using that feedback to create an informed action plan which supports pupils with attendance.
Recognising and rewarding good attendance can motivate students to attend school regularly. Schools can implement attendance awards, certificates, or even small incentives to celebrate students with high or significantly improved attendance. Examples used at Paradigm schools include weekly attendance competitions, half term parties for classes with the best attendance, non-school-uniform days and prize draws.
By having a range of tools available, and taking the time to understand each student’s particular situation, it’s possible to respond effectively and improve school attendance. After implementing a soft start room for students to come into at the start of the day with a member of the pastoral team, Ipswich Academy is now seeing students come into school everyday this year who didn’t attend school at all the previous year. Similar success stories are happening across the Trust.
Through this work more pupils are spending more time at school, and as a result are better educated and better prepared to succeed in their adult lives.
Paradigm Trust takes a mastery approach to teaching maths, ensuring its pupils and students revisit the same core areas throughout their schooling, to achieve a level of knowledge which gives them greater capabilities in the subject.
Lyndsay Collin is a mathematics teacher and has previously been Maths Network Coordinator at Ipswich Academy, the Trust’s secondary school. Lyndsay did her teacher training with Paradigm and is now the Trust’s NCETM maths hub specialist: “With the Maths Mastery system, depth of knowledge is far more important than breadth,” she says. “By using a consistent approach to teaching the subject, from EYFS through to KS4, children moving through the school can grasp the fundamentals and build on them, every time they revisit.“
Evaluation and improvement is not limited to individual schools. To maximise the effectiveness of teaching at Paradigm, maths leads from across the Trust’s network meet regularly to review the way the subject is being taught and exchange best practice. Subject knowledge is monitored to deal with common misconceptions, and thanks to the Trust’s ‘Open Classroom’ policy, learning walks allow subject leads to see what support is needed.
Lyndsay continues: “There is a real ‘talk for learning’ ethos across the curriculum at Paradigm, so our maths lessons involve a lot of conversation in the classroom. A key technique to encourage this at Ipswich Academy is the Agree, Build, Challenge (ABC) model which teachers use to coax enhanced discussion and thinking. For Agree, teachers give students two answers and they have to say which they agree with, then explain their rationale to justify their answer. Build requires the teacher to ask a student to build upon another student’s answer, elaborating or giving new information. Challenge involves the teacher asking a student whether they would like to challenge each other’s answers and opinions in a positive and constructive way.” A similar model is used in the primaries, adapted for the level of the pupils.
Paradigm Trust prioritises regular, subject specific CPD. To be able to deliver the curriculum effectively, it’s not just teachers who need to have a strong grasp of the subject – teaching assistants supporting SEND students need to be assured in their own maths knowledge too. To achieve this, and support members of staff who may have gaps in their knowledge, Paradigm Trust has put measures into place including termly subject knowledge enhancements sessions for TAs. This was initially trialled in the secondary school, Ipswich Academy, and when it proved successful, the Trust rolled it out to its primary schools in Suffolk and London.
The Trust works hard to ensure no child is left behind in any subject, and in maths, if a pupil is struggling and experiencing maths anxiety, there are a range of techniques which a teacher can employ.
Lyndsay Collin explains; “ As part of our SSAT sessions recently we have been exploring the strategies that come from students learning and feeding back to each other – however these are just a small subset of strategies that we use to ensure students don’t fall behind. Sitting them with more confident students is just one of the ways that we can do this. We also provide backwards fading work to provide scaffolding and ensure we model problems and talk them through with the students and ensure that they understand using Assessment For Learning (AFL) before getting them to complete independent work, we then check our students work as they are working and give live feedback either to individuals or as a group depending on the need. We use manipulatives within the classroom to help support the learning of students who struggle with maths, as this can build their conceptual understanding before we move onto a more abstract concept.
“Teachers then check students’ work as they are working and give live feedback either to individuals or as a group depending on the need. They also use manipulatives within the classroom to help support the learning of students that struggle with maths, as this can build their conceptual understanding before moving onto a more abstract concept.”
At Ipswich Academy there is also a dedicated support centre, where pupils not coping with mainstream classes can take part in smaller group sessions. In more extreme cases where children actively avoid maths and may use distraction techniques, the Paradigm behaviour policy comes into play. Teachers work with the attendance team, teaching assistants, the pupil and their family to build a trusting and supportive atmosphere around the subject.
Having a strong foundation in maths gives a pupil a good advantage when they come to the more advanced topics at secondary school. This is why Paradigm Trust places a particular emphasis on learning the language of maths. From when they first join primary school, pupils’ mathematics vocabulary is built to grow confidence in the use of terms such as coefficient, highest common factor and lowest common denominator. This particular focus enables pupils to have easier conversations around the subject and access to answering examination questions when they reach their GCSE studies.
The most recent progress 8 score at Ipswich Academy was a strong +0.29 and Key Stage 3 attainment is above the national average. The number of students achieving between level 4 and level 9 at Key Stage 4 is also increasing. Across the five primaries 71% are attaining level 4+ and 53.7% are working at 5+. Everything the Trust does is evidence based, and these outcomes are solid proof that the approach it is taking with maths is delivering great results for its pupils.
By focusing on teaching scientific knowledge and working collaboratively, Paradigm Trust is changing the way science is learnt, resulting in pupils achieving improved results and greater engagement with the subject in all their schools.
To ensure science is taught effectively there are several challenges which need to be overcome. The first and perhaps biggest of these is the way the teaching of science is implemented at the different stages. It is noticeable in the UK education system science is often taught in a completely different manner in primary schools than it is in secondary schools. This disconnect causes issues as the skills and knowledge embedded during the primary years are not the ones valued at secondary school, so time needs to be spent at the start of Year Seven teaching the pupils what they need to know to be able to learn effectively at Key Stage 3 and beyond.
Science often has less classroom time than other core subjects such as maths, reading and writing, so it is essential that this precious time is maximised. However, many primary schools across the country use an inquiry-based learning approach, despite a growing number of studies showing this teaching method to be ineffective in its current form. It generally fails because significant scientific knowledge needs to be in place before the enquiry begins so the correct questions can be asked. Due to lack of time or lack of understanding children usually aren’t primed with this scientific knowledge and so do not have sufficient comprehension of what they are looking for to get the most out of this approach.
Exacerbating the challenges which face many UK primary schools is the lack of specialist science teachers working at that level. While there are some teachers with science qualifications who work in primary schools, the majority of teachers who are qualified in science choose to work in secondary schools. The one or two days that teacher training spends on science come nowhere near to filling this gap.
When children reach secondary school, the focus often shifts almost exclusively to teaching what the pupil needs to know to pass the GCSE, rather than exploring the full uses of science, so students can be left with a narrow comprehension of the subject that is more weighted towards succeeding in an exam than having a good understanding of science.
Paradigm Trust is working to overcome these traditional challenges and raise student attainment levels in science using a number of different strategies. The first is ensuring all six of its schools are working from an effective science curriculum, using consistent, evidenced-based teaching methods. This ensures there is continuity across the board, and teachers are using techniques which are proven to be effective to deliver the material.
The Trust makes sure that children are taught the necessary scientific knowledge first, whatever the age of the child. It is only with this as a pupil’s foundation that they are then able to get the most out of any enquiry activities, maximising their learning time and gaining a better understanding of science. Without this scientific knowledge children won’t be able to develop essential skills such as problem solving, understanding scientific texts or extrapolating accurate conclusions from results.
This goes some way to draw together the two different cultures of primary science and secondary school science, but Paradigm schools ensure the gap is as small as possible by communicating regularly with each other. In subject groups a large proportion of time is spent discussing ways in which children can be better prepared for the move from primary to secondary school, and how to make science effective from Nursery to Year 9. In this way there is less disruption when pupils move from Year 6 to Year 7 and the learning experience is far smoother. Much of this work is led by Ben Rogers who is on the Education Committee at the Institute of Physics, and on the editing panel for the Association of Science Education journal. He is also part of the Ofsted Science advisory group, with a particular focus on primary schools.
Since Paradigm began working this way more students have been successful in science GCSE, and more high grades are being achieved. The number of students choosing to study a science subject at further education level has increased, and at every level of schooling it is noticeable that children are achieving better results and becoming more engaged in the subject.
Having an effective understanding of science is incredibly important for the individual and society. Children are entitled to know how the world works – without this knowledge their lives aren’t as rich. A good understanding of science will allow them as adults to make informed decisions on important matters, such as voting, wearing a mask or receiving a vaccination as has been seen recently. And it opens doors to numerous careers in a huge range of fields. For all these reasons Paradigm Trust will continue to work and innovate to ensure it gives its pupils the best science education possible.