September is a crystal ball for future pupil absences, study says

Adi Bloom

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Teachers will now be able to spot pupils with high levels of term-time absence before those absences have even occurred.

New research has shown that it is possible to predict pupils’ levels of year-round absence by taking note of how many days they take off in September.

Academics from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium studied the attendance figures for pupils across the Baltimore City school district.

They found that pupils who missed more than four days of school during September went on to miss an average of six to nine days of school a month. This amounts to 70 missed days, throughout the school year.

This, the academics said, is “an astounding amount of school”. They added: “Missing 70 days would unquestionably slow down learning, as it essentially translates into missing two-and-a-half months of instruction.”

School attendance, the academics told the recent American Education Research Association conference, held in Chicago, is recognised as a key indicator of pupils’ engagement, and is strongly tied to academic performance. Nonetheless, they said, “School leaders may often assume that September is a warming-up month, as may families.”

Almost a quarter – 22.4 per cent – of the pupils whose records were studied by the researchers were absent for at least two days in September. The highest levels of absence were among teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18, with 36.7 per cent missing two or more school days during the first month of the academic year.

Pupils who missed fewer than two days of school in September continued to average fewer than two days’ absence each month. Across the entire school year, they were absent for an average of only 10 days in total.

Those pupils who were absent for between two and four days in September continued to miss two or three days of school for each succeeding month. Across the entire year, they averaged 25 days’ absence. This is equivalent to more than a month of school days.

Indeed, those pupils who missed more than two days of school during the first month of the year were likely to have been defined as chronically absent by the end of the summer term.

Even controlling for all other factors, children who missed between two and four days of school in September were five times more likely to be chronically absent throughout the year than pupils who missed fewer than two days of school in September. And those who missed more than four days in September were 16 times more likely to be chronically absent than those who missed fewer than two days.

“Results suggest that early behaviours at the start of the year have implications for the rest of the year that have far-reaching consequences,” the academics said. This is particularly true during critical school years, when chronic absence can have a significant effect on academic achievement.

Many reported reasons for school absences at the start of the year are, however, relatively minor, the academics said. For example, families often report keeping their children at home because of a lack of correct uniform, unfamiliarity with public-transport routes, and pupils’ fears about the new year.

“Such barriers can easily be remedied,” the academics said. “School leaders work tirelessly thorugh the summer to create a welcoming and academically rigorous environment for students. But if students are not present and engaged at the outset, this work may be negated.”


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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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