School absences and pupil achievement
A look at the empirical evidence on the strength of the relationship between school absence and pupil achievement.
3 July 2020
School absence occurs when a pupil does not attend school when it would usually be open. In England, the average pupil missed 8.4 of the 195 scheduled days in the 2018/19 academic year. However, this masks wide variation in the number of days missed, with 10.9% of pupils absent for more than 10 days (DfE, 2020).
Absences happen for two broad reasons. First, pupils can fail to turn up to school on a day that the school is open. They may be ill, truanting or natural obstacles such as flooding may prevent them from attending. Second, the school may be experiencing an unscheduled closure due to a teaching strike, extreme weather or a disease epidemic (such as COVID-19).
Pupils who do not attend school when school is open (uncoordinated absences) see a small decline in their academic achievement:
- Each day of individual pupil absence results in around 0.3-0.4% of a standard deviation reduction in achievement.
- Equivalently, eight days of absence (the average in England) would move a pupil one place down a ranking of 100 pupils (e.g. from 50th to 51st).
- Pupils from low-income households see a larger negative effect from each day of absence.
Pupil achievement can also be harmed by term-time school closures (coordinated absences):
- It is not clear whether coordinated closures are more or less damaging then uncoordinated closures. In any case, the magnitude of this effect will likely depend on what kind of educational activities pupils engage in during the closure.
- Again, pupils from low-income households experience a larger negative effect from coordinated absences
- Coordinated absences lasting for several weeks can have small long-run negative effects on pupil achievement.
- Reducing pupil absences will have a positive effect on achievement and is likely to reduce achievement gaps between high and low income pupils.
- Improving communication with parents via text or email has been shown to be an effective way of reducing such absences.
- Achievement is most negatively affected if pupils are tested soon after their return to school. If feasible, and where pupils will be studying related material in the subsequent terms, delaying tests gives pupils a chance to catch up.