- The lead inspector will ask the school to provide an up-to-date analysis of attendance overall, and by pupil groups, for the start of the inspection.
- Attendance has a heavy weighting in Ofsted inspections due to the consequences for children.
- There is a strong link between attendance and academic achievement. Non-attendance also has a corrosive effect on personal development, with absentees even becoming involved in drug-taking and criminal activity.
- In order to evaluate attendance and punctuality, inspectors consider overall absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups, in relation to national figures for all pupils, improvements in attendance and punctuality to lessons.
At the end of Key Stage 4, the percentage of pupils leaving school with no qualifications is very small. Almost invariably these pupils have been persistent absentees to the point that they hardly attend school at all. This is the extreme, but at every stage there is a strong link between attendance and academic achievement. Beyond this, non-attendance also has a corrosive effect on personal development, with absentees even becoming involved in drug-taking and criminal activity. This is why attendance has such a heavy weighting in inspection.
Schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, need to analyse the evidence for attendance scrupulously and present a contextualised explanation to inspectors during their inspection. What they must not do is try to justify low attendance with reference to pupil characteristics or lack of parental support. The lead inspector will ask the school to provide an up-to-date analysis of attendance overall, and by pupil groups, for the start of the inspection.
In order to evaluate attendance and punctuality, paragraph 165 of the inspection handbook instructs inspectors to consider:
- overall absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups in relation to national figures for all pupils
- the extent to which low attenders are improving their attendance over time and whether attendance is consistently low (in the lowest 10%)
- punctuality in arriving at school and at lessons.
When doing so, inspectors must compare attendance in the school with national averages and not the averages for similar schools or similar pupils.
The inspection dashboard provides data on absence and persistent absence for the last three years, so schools should identify real or apparent trends and prepare explanatory evidence. For the most recent year, all pupils and major groups are compared with the overall national average and the average for the 10% of schools with the highest absence rates. If the results match the defined descriptors (see the guidance pack in RAISEonline) this will be identified in the strengths and weaknesses statements on the first page of the dashboard. These statements are the starting point for inspections of good schools.
As pointed out above, inspectors are instructed to compare against national averages and they will not deviate from this. Nevertheless, they still need to decide whether lower than average attendance is an absolute or a relative weakness. Therefore, they need to consider outcomes and comparisons with similar groups.
Schools should cross-reference any identified weaknesses with the other sections of the dashboard. For example, if the attendance of SEN pupils was identified as low, is this reflected in results for value added, progress and attainment? If not, the school could argue that it is compensating for this weakness with additional support in other areas.
If the inspection is of a good school, then inspectors will only use the inspection dashboard and not RAISEonline. This gives the school the opportunity to present additional evidence. In relation to attendance, RAISEonline provides the national averages for different groups. Consider the case where attendance is low for SEN pupils in comparison with the national average and also below the average for SEN pupils nationally. This would be considered an absolute weakness and the school would be severely criticised. It may even result in a judgement of inadequate for personal development, behaviour and welfare.
On the other hand, if attendance is low against the national average but in line with similar pupils, and the school is making strenuous efforts to improve outcomes, this will be judged a relative weakness. This is noted but the school is not censured.
Note from your RAISEonline report the large differences in attendance rates between groups. Schools can use this data to provide a perspective on overall attendance. It is clear, for example, that all other things being equal, schools with high levels of FSM will have lower rates of attendance than schools with low FSM. This is indeed the case in practice.
It is a fairly straightforward sum to calculate the negative or positive impact of these differences in pupils' characteristics for an individual school. The school could then present an estimated attendance rate based on the actual rates for different groups, but with the sizes of the groups recalculated in line with national proportions. An unsympathetic inspector might not accept this argument, but it is reasonable to ask why Ofsted provides this data if it is not meant to be used.
Pursuing the impact of low attendance on outcomes for pupils, the interactive tables in RAISEonline allow schools to look at combinations of pupils' characteristics. Consider the scenario where boys as a group have below average attendance and below average attainment. Using the interactive tables, a school can ask RAISEonline to filter results for gender and other characteristics such as SEN or FSM or both. This exercise will often show that what appeared to be a gender issue is actually a group of boys with a high proportion of SEN. Pupils with learning difficulties have higher absence rates as well as lower achievement.
The data dashboard gives overall attendance rates for the last three years against the national averages and also states by how much attendance has increased or decreased over that time. It therefore shows any trend very clearly. It also locates the school within its appropriate quintile for all schools.
The performance tables compare the school's overall absence and persistent absence with the respective national averages. Schools can easily compare their own data with their neighbours' or those with similar characteristics. Where these are favourable they can be presented to inspectors.
Reasons for absence
After presenting the data from a range of perspectives it is essential to show why some groups of pupils are absent. In an infant school, low attendance might be as simple as a chickenpox outbreak. In schools with high levels of recent immigrants, the explanation may be extended holidays to visit families.
In both cases, attendance outside of these circumstances may be excellent.
Use the following item in the toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Tony Powell is an experienced Additional Inspector and LA adviser. He writes extensively on education management, but his main work is supporting schools to develop systems for self-evaluation, school improvement and continuing professional development.