Free article: What is the link between absence and attainment

Published: Monday, 08 May 2017

It is common sense that if a child is off school for a long period of time, their attainment will suffer. However, can the same be said for a day’s or even a week’s holiday? John Viner examines the evidence for a link between attendance and performance.


  • The 2012 Taylor Review drew a link between absence and attainment. 
  • Freedom of information enquiries seek to establish the causal link between absence and attainment and not just that they are correlated.
  • Further research suggests that term-time absence may have no measurable negative impact on pupil performance.

We have become used to the DfE’s claims about the link between attendance and performance. Without question, the evidence suggests that there is more than a little truth in this. However, with the increased profile of term-time holiday absence, parental anger about penalty notices and the much-publicised case of Jon Platt v the Isle of Wight, just how strong is the evidence?

To understand how we got here in the first place, we must look back to a piece of DfE research dating from 2011 entitled: ‘A profile of pupil absence in England’. This informed the 2012 Taylor Review, Improving Attendance at School, which is a com-prehensive 100-page summary of extensive research carried out by the DfE’s Education Standards Analysis and Research Divi-sion. This intriguingly bears the caveat that the views are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the DfE.

The review is essentially a work of statistics, tables, graphs and diagrams and draws a set of fairly predictable conclusions. The headlines were that, over the five years preceding the study:

  • levels of overall absence across all maintained schools had dropped by almost half a percentage point 
  • authorised absences had fallen by almost half a percent while unauthorised absences increased by around the same rate
  • persistent absentee rates across all maintained schools had fallen significantly

  • the majority of absences were caused by a minority of pupils 

  • special schools had the highest levels of overall absence, followed by state-funded secondary and primary schools.

So, overall an improving picture. The report then analysed the characteristics of the absentees and the reasons for their ab-sence. However, what was important was the conclusion that: 

  • ‘There is a clear link between absence and attainment. As levels of pupil absences increase, the proportion of pupils reaching the expected levels of attainment at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, decrease.’

This was to be the message of the moment. Pupil absence equals a drop in performance.

The 2011 report was updated by a 2015 study based on 2013 data. The publication was entitled: ‘The link between absence and attainment at KS2 and KS4’ and the research helpfully updates the data and draws the same conclusions as in 2011.

Five years later

Jump forward five years from the original research to the Platt judgement. The High Court upheld the original court ruling that, because his daughter did attend school regularly, there was no case to answer. Online petitions call for the DfE to reverse its line on holiday absence and the DfE’s Nick Gibb tells a parliamentary debate that, ‘unauthorised absences have a significantly ad-verse effect on the child who is absent as they miss vital stepping stones.’

Perhaps it is a function of government departments to make policy based on apparent evidence – it is sometimes called evi-dence-based government. However, what happens if the hypotheses are taken at face value without being sufficiently tested? The position is that, if the evidence says it is so, then it is so, and this has allowed the DfE to sustain its claim that every missed day imperils a child’s education.

Seeking clarification

In August 2015, Neale Upstone made a freedom of information enquiry, asking for evidence to back up the DfE’s claim. He raised concerns as to the impact that the claim had:

  • ‘with respect to families where a child may be getting authorised absences due to the critical or terminal illness of a family member. Their lives are impacted by those family events. Is the DoE saying that they will also be scarred by the impact on their education, and if so, what advice is given to schools to mitigate the impact in these circumstances?’

The DfE’s response was to point out that, ‘the Department is not required to provide information in response to a request if it is already reasonably accessible to you.’

It then referred him to the 2015 research.

A year later, Professor Alan Barr from Oxford University made a similar request, challenging a DfE spokesperson’s comment that, ‘the evidence shows that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil's chances of achieving good GCSEs....’

Unsurprisingly, Professor Barr met the same DfE response but followed up with this:

  • ‘I wish to know not the evidence for correlation but the evidence for causality. That information is not available in the linked report, which shows only a correlation. The statement from the spokesperson makes clear that the department believes there to be evidence that absence from school “causes” lower grades. On what study do they base that statement?’

The DfE again referred him to the research, pointing out that it ‘does not imply causation’.

Under freedom of information (FoI) rules, an enquirer who is not satisfied with the way their enquiry has been handled, is en-titled to ask for a review. This, of course, was Professor Barr’s next step. The outcome is not yet known.

More research findings

At this point, Dr Beccy Smith, a scientist with primary-age children, offered her own research findings. She had carried out an additional layer of analysis, which was, of course, the missing data that was needed. That was to separate out from all absence that which was related only to term-time holidays. She found that:

  • ‘When looking at all types of absences we do indeed see that 2014 KS2 level 4 attainment drops from 94.7% at no absence steadily down to 87.0% at 20 days’ absence. However, when looking at only authorised holiday absence, we see that KS2 attainment jumps up from 83.8% at no authorised absence to a reasonably level 87% attainment for 1 to 20 days’ absence.’

Professor Barr had also carried out a similar data review. He wrote to the DfE:

  • ‘I undertook a brief re-analysis of the raw KS2 data from the study. I confirm Beccy's findings. The four conclusions I draw from these data are that: 
  1. Long periods of absence are dominated by pupils' illness.
  2. Children who have long periods of illness unfortunately tend to perform significantly worse in the tests.
  3. Authorised holiday absence has almost no effect.
  4. Except that those pupils who take no authorised holiday absence at all are likely to do worse than those who do take at least one day.’

So, it seems, contrary to the DfE’s claims that term-time holiday absence not only has no measurable negative impact on pupil performance, it may actually improve it.

What next?

Once again, we are in the waiting room. The statistical analysis of Doctors Smith and Barr suggest a wholly different picture from the DfE’s correlation mantra and we also await the FoI review that Dr Barr has requested. In the meantime, we await news from the Supreme Court hearing in relation to Jon Platt and the Isle of Wight Council. At all events, it looks very much as if the balance is beginning to swing away from the DfE.

Already some local authorities have changed their policy towards term-time holiday absence but it is a mixed, and therefore unequal, picture across the country. To see what your local authority and its neighbours are doing, Jon Platt has created a page of useful information, which is updated as it becomes available. It can be found at:

The proforma that accompanies this article (see Form – Data collection sheet: Term-time holiday absence and its impact on pupil performance) is not a management tool; it is a research tool to help you analyse the relative performance of your pupils. Join the bigger picture of research. You can email your results to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and they will be collated.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful primary school leadership. He is now a full-time writer, inspector and adviser.

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