More focus needed on reasons for school absences and their impact on attainment

Policy and research related to absences from school should have more focus on the reasons pupils miss classes, and the impact absence has on attainment, according to research led at the University of Strathclyde.

The study examined the individual impact on pupils’ exam results of absence for various reasons, including truancy, sickness and exceptional domestic circumstances such as bereavement.

It found that there was little difference between the effect of each reason on pupils’ attainment. However, previous research has indicated that unauthorised absence has a greater impact and policy has tended to focus on these reasons.

The Strathclyde-led research proposed that support mechanisms should be designed for pupils to catch up on absence for whatever reason and that intervention can help to mitigate unavoidable absences, such as those caused by sickness. It also suggested that the success of interventions to prevent absenteeism depends on how well they focus on why students miss out on schooling.

The research was carried out in partnership with the General Teaching Council for Scotland and Poverty Alliance Scotland. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which is part of UK Research and Innovation, and has been published in the journal AERA Open.

Dr Markus Klein, of Strathclyde’s School of Education, a co-author of the study, said: “Previous research on this subject mainly looked at absences overall and did not differentiate the reasons. Some considered unauthorised and authorised absences, but we see these definitions as too broad.

“Unauthorised absences are typically the main interest of policy but it shouldn’t be only these that are considered; as sickness absences can be as detrimental to pupils’ attainment. We did not find any statistically significant differences between absences in their negative effect on attainment.

“It’s important to mitigate the harmful consequences of absences but further research will be needed into the relationships between specific forms of absenteeism and academic achievement.”

Dr Edward Sosu, a Reader in Strathclyde’s School of Education, is also a co-author of the study. He said: “If we want to address absence through sickness or truancy, we have to address the missing of school itself but also some of the underlying reasons such as health, behaviour or psychosocial aspects.

“The reasons for absenteeism are complex and a more nuanced approach is needed, with more comprehensive forms of intervention.”

The negative impact on achievement of various absences suggests that other factors may be involved. The researchers placed these in three categories: health, in which sickness absences may indicate long-term underlying conditions - including mental health - that negatively affect educational achievement; behavioural, in which absences associated with truancy might exacerbate negative behaviours such as alcohol consumption or drug abuse, which in turn cause lower academic achievement, and psychosocial, in which absences reduce contact with peers and teachers, leading to less integration in the school environment and a feeling of alienation.