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School Attendance and the Poverty-related Attainment Gap

In this research update, Markus Klein and Edward Sosu discuss their work which aims to better understand socioeconomic inequalities in pupil absences.

Significant socioeconomic inequalities in educational attainment are a well-established finding in Scotland (Sosu and Ellis, 2014) and globally (Kim, Cho and Kim, 2019; OECD, 2018). Closing the poverty-related attainment gap is a key priority in Scottish education policy, as evidenced by programmes such as the Pupil Equity Fund. However, to introduce more targeted interventions, we need to better understand the drivers of socioeconomic inequalities in educational attainment in Scotland.


The role of absenteeism

While there is abundant research on the mechanisms underpinning these disparities, the role of school absenteeism has not yet been explored. Missing out frequently from school may be more frequently prevalent among disadvantaged children and may hinder their ability to develop to their full academic potential. School absences may be detrimental to individuals' educational and life course outcomes and Scotland's economic and societal progress. Investigating the determinants and consequences of school absences in Scottish schools is an essential requirement for evidence-based changes in absenteeism policy and practice.


In our project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, we investigate the extent to which differences in school attendance can explain socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment. The reasons for these disparities are likely multi-faceted ranging from differences in health, behaviour problems, or parental involvement. Missing out on important parts of the curriculum due to lower attendance may result in poorer performance in school exams, increased risk of dropout, and a lower likelihood of progressing to higher education.


The first part of our research (Klein, Sosu and Dare, 2020) examined the extent to which different dimensions of socioeconomic background (parental education, parental class, housing tenure, free school meal registration, and neighbourhood deprivation) predict various forms of school absenteeism (overall, sickness, family holidays, truancy, and temporary exclusion). For this purpose, we used the Scottish Longitudinal Study linking socioeconomic background measures from the Census with administrative school records, including detailed information on school attendance and the reasons for being absent from school.


  • All dimensions of socioeconomic background increased the risk of being absent from school. Neglecting some of these dimensions would underestimate the full extent of socioeconomic inequalities in school attendance.
  • Young people from socially rented households and households with no qualifications were the most likely to be absent from school.
  • These socioeconomic characteristics were also consistently associated with specific reasons for being absent from school (sickness, truancy, temporary exclusion).
  • Socioeconomic inequalities in school attendance were very similar across boys and girls, as well as urban and rural areas.



The closure of schools due to COVID-19 is likely to perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities in school attendance. For instance, there were indications of socioeconomic gaps in parental intentions to send their children back to school post-lockdown (Andrew et al., 2020), and socioeconomic disparities in school attendance once schools reopened in England (Teacher Tapp, 2020). Estimates by the Education Endowment Foundation (2020) suggest that the attainment gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds arising from the COVID-19 closure will increase by about 35%, with the worse scenario being 75%. While this is mainly due to socioeconomic gaps in homeschooling and online learning (Bayrakdar and Guveli, 2020), policymakers should not underestimate the role of school absenteeism for widening socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment. There is an urgent need to pay attention to socioeconomic differences in school absenteeism now that young people are back in school.


Our study also suggests that making decisions on education policy solely based on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) may miss many children from disadvantaged backgrounds. While this neighborhood socioeconomic indicator is associated with school attendance, individual socioeconomic circumstances are much stronger risk factors for being absent from school. If we aim to reduce socioeconomic inequality in absenteeism and attainment, relying solely on the SIMD in policy decisions will not be sufficient. To effectively break the cycle of socioeconomic disadvantage in schooling will require much broader set of socioeconomic indicators when introducing interventions.


Markus Klein & Edward Sosu



Andrew, A. et al., 2020. Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning. IFS Briefing Note BN288. Available at:

Bayrakdar, S. and Guveli, A., 2020. Inequalities in home learning and schools’ provision of distance teaching during school closure of COVID-19 lockdown in the UK. ISER Working Paper Series. University of Essex. Available at:

Education Endowment Foundation 2020. Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment. London: Education Endowment Foundation. Available at:

Kim, S. won, Cho, H., & Kim, L. Y. 2019. Socioeconomic status and academic outcomes in developing countries: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 89(6), 875–916.

Klein, M., Sosu, E. and Dare, S. 2020. Mapping inequalities in school attendance: the relationship between dimensions of socioeconomic status and forms of school absence. Children and Youth Services Review, 118, 105432.

OECD. 2018. Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility. PISA, OECD Publishing. Available at:

Sosu, E., & Ellis, S. 2014. Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available at:

Teacher Tapp 2020. Emerging from Lockdown: What the New World Looks Like. Available at: