Varied interventions needed to combat increasing student absences

Regular attendance is declining1

Over the last five years, and prior to entering this unsettled COVID-19 period, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of students attending school regularly. The Ministry of Education defines regular attendance as being present at school for 90 percent or more of the year. However, even if a student attends 90 percent of the time, they will have missed the equivalent of an entire year of schooling by age 16. In 2015, 69 percent of students attended regularly; by 2019, this number had fallen to just over 58 percent. Even for those students who do attend regularly, they are attending fewer days than they did last year. The Ministry has examined the relationship between attendance and NCEA credit attainment, suggesting that there is no ‘safe’ level where academic results are unaffected by absences. Therefore, it is important to look at attendance even among those students within the ‘regular’ attendance bracket, particularly since we are seeing a downward trend. This is backed up in international literature, which links absenteeism with areas such as wellbeing and social development, as well as academic success.2 This article summarises the recent evidence about the decline in regular attendance in New Zealand schools, provides a short review of what may contribute to absenteeism, and a discussion about what schools could do to improve attendance.

Absences increased across all schools and all students

The decline in regular attendance has occurred across all categories of schools and students. As such, we cannot afford to focus solely on a single group. That said, students in primary school, and those students who identify with a Māori or Pacific ethnicity, have seen a more pronounced decline in regular attendance. Among all students, full-day absences were most common, half-day absences were less common, and individual lesson absences were least common. These absences were most likely to be on Mondays or Fridays. However, there has also been an increase in students missing at least two days in a row, most commonly on both Thursday and Friday.

Increase in students not attending due to illness

Over half of the recorded absences were considered ‘justified’. These justified absences had been fluctuating until 2019 saw a spike in numbers. The most common recorded reason for a justified absence was sickness, though the Ministry suggests that this cannot easily be explained away by a harsh flu season. Unjustified absences have steadily increased since 2015 and are most often categorised as ‘unexplained’. As more investigation has gone into the causes of absences, it has become clear that the difference between unjustified and justified absences is less distinct than traditionally assumed. Investigating absenteeism for any reason – whether justified or unjustified – is important, as any absence means the student is not at school and is missing the benefits of attending school. Moreover, poor attendance now often predicts poor attendance later: students with poor attendance at a young age tend to attend less throughout their school life, if no action is taken.

Why might students not be attending regularly?

The decision to miss school is often complex. It is generally understood to be an interaction of multiple factors, with schools, students, parents and whānau each forming a pillar that should support attendance. School factors that may influence a decision to not attend include bullying, an unsafe environment, poor teacher-student relationships, or a lack of engaging or culturally responsive curriculum. Parent/whānau factors may include parentally condoned absences (for example, allowing their student to avoid physical education), family relocation, family holidays, low value placed on education, or an adverse home environment, including precarious housing circumstances. Student factors may include avoidance coping (for example, avoiding class because they haven’t done their homework), mental health needs, peer relationships, a lack of engagement, or boredom.3 The Behavioural Insights Team have undertaken some work in New Zealand, publishing a report that focuses on unjustified absences. They identified two broad explanations for unjustified absences in secondary schools. Firstly, family disengagement, possibly due to distrust of the school, shift work leading to limited oversight, or drug and alcohol problems. Secondly, student disengagement, possibly due to mental health issues, or uninterest in the content of classes. Overseas, case studies have also frequently identified bullying as a key driver of non-attendance.4 Given recent ERO and OECD reports highlighting the prevalence of bullying in New Zealand schools, it seems an important factor to consider.

How do we approach a solution?

Strategies to address attendance may differ across age groups, as the causes for absenteeism may be different. Younger students generally tend to have less agency in the decision not to attend school compared with older students, that is, parents are generally more involved in the decision process for younger students. Parents could also be making it easier for students to skip a day of school by providing a justifiable reason to the school, such as sickness. This does not necessarily mean parents are at fault; rather it recognises that attendance interventions should seek to influence and engage parents in some way, especially for younger students. One promising intervention focused on engaging parents that has been tested in the United States served to promote and reinforce the importance of attendance to parents through tailored text messages.5 The trial looked at those in the early years of primary (equivalent) schools, and focused on reducing the number of students that were absent for 10 percent or more of the time. It sought to diagnose barriers to attendance, such as transport or work circumstances. Part of the service also aimed to make caregivers aware of services and resources that were in place to support them, particularly in getting to school. They found that the pilot schools had a substantially lower absence rate compared to previous years, and 10 percent lower absence rate than the ‘average’ school in the intervention year.

With complex and interacting causes, absenteeism is unlikely to be resolved by a single approach and requires intervention at many levels. One attempt to pool this information is Attendance Works, an initiative in the United States. There are resources for schools to facilitate thinking around attendance, which may also have some value for us in New Zealand. Attendance Works utilises a model developed by Kearney and Graczyk (2014) , who suggest interventions to promote attendance and reduce absenteeism could be tiered to help match the problem with a possible solution. Table 1 below lays out each of the three tiers suggested, along with which students the intervention seeks to support. It is important to note that while the decline in regular attendance calls for targeted approaches in this model, it also suggests that universal interventions could have a strong preventative role. Among the universal approaches, monitoring and following up on absences is essential, as this underpins all other interventions and is vital in determining what actions to take next.

Table 1: Three tiers of interventions
Who is this for? What types of interventions?

Tier 1:

Universal interventions

All students, all the time
  • Monitoring and following-up on absences

  • School climate interventions

  • Safety-oriented strategies, such as supporting student advocacy groups

  • School-based mental health programmes

  • Parental involvement initiatives

  • Learning support strategies, such as providing home-learning material

Tier 2: 

Targeted interventions

Students with declining attendance
  • Providing specific and relevant feedback to parents/whānau, such as feeding back about content students miss during absences

  • Improving student engagement, such as developing culturally responsive curricula

  • Teacher or peer mentoring, such as older students assisting in understanding and managing expectations

  • Mental health and wellbeing support, such as counselling

Tier 3: 

Intensive interventions

Students who are chronically absent 

  • Parent/whānau involvement strategies

  • Alternative educational programmes and schools

  • Intensive case management
    (Currently, this is where many interventions in New Zealand schools sit, for example the Ministry’s attendance service)

The key points to note from this article are:

  • Attending school is important and worthwhile.
  • Absenteeism is increasing, even amongst students who attend school regularly.
  • The cumulative effect of absences is significant. Those attending 90 percent of the time effectively lose a year of schooling by the time they are 16.
  • Each absence has an effect; there is no ‘safe’ number of days to miss school.
  • All absences should be monitored and followed-up on, including both justified and unjustified.
  • The reasons that students miss school are varied, complex, and often interdependent.
  • There is no ‘silver bullet’ for improving attendance, and compliance is only one of many interventions schools could use.

With the ongoing implications of Covid-19 on schooling, attendance and engagement become even more important conversations. Understandably, Alert Level 3 and 4 states have created a significant disruption to normal schooling, and a heightened risk of disengagement for some learners. Some of the factors that we have identified as contributing to absenteeism have undoubtedly been exacerbated; striking a balance between highlighting the value of being in school and accommodating the difficult circumstances around the pandemic is challenging but critical.

Works Cited

Ministry of Education | Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga (February 2020) “Student Attendance Survey Term 2, 2019”. https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/2503/new-zealand-schools-attendance-survey-term-2,-2019

Behavioural Insights Team (August 2018) “Using behavioural insights to reduce unjustified school absences” Ministry of Education | Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga. https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/schooling/using-behavioural-insights-to-reduce-unjustified-school-absences

Childs, Joshua, and Ain A. Grooms (2018) “Improving School Attendance through Collaboration: A Catalyst for Community Involvement and Change.” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR) pp. 1-17. DOI:10.1080/10824669.2018.1439751.

Education Review Office| Te Tari Arotake Mātauranga (May 2019) “Bullying Prevention and Response: Student Voice May 2019”. https://ero.govt.nz/publications/bullying-prevention-and-response-student-voice-may-2019/

Gottfried, Michael (ed), and Ethan Hutt (ed) (2019) Absent from school: understanding and addressing student absenteeism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.

Gottfried, Michael A, (2010) “Evaluating the Relationship Between Student Attendance and Achievement in Urban Elementary and Middle Schools: An Instrumental Variables Approach.” American Educational Research Journal Vol. 47: pp. 434-465. DOI:10.3102/0002831209350494.

Gren-Landell, Malin, Cornelia Ekerfelt Allvin, Maria Bradley, Maria Andersson, and Gerhard Andersson (2015) “Teachers’ views on risk factors for problematic school absenteeism in Swedish primary school students.” Educational Psychology in Practice Vol. 31, No. 4: pp. 412-423. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02667363.2015.1086726

Havik, Trude, Edvin Bru, and Sigrun K. Ertesvåg (2014) “Assessing Reasons for School Non-attendance.” Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research pp. 1-21. DOI:10.1080/00313831.2014.904424.

Kearney, Christopher A., and Patricia Graczyk (2014) “A Response to Intervention Model to Promote School Attendance and Decrease School Absenteeism.” Child Youth Care Forum pp. 1-25. DOI:10.1007/s10566-013-9222-1.

Kearney, Christopher A., Carolina Gonzálvez, Patricia Graczyk, and Mirae J. Fornander (October 2019) “Reconciling Contemporary Approaches to School Attendance and School Absenteeism: Toward Promotion and Nimble Response, Global Policy Review and Implementation, and Future Adaptability (Part 1).” Frontiers in Psychology. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02222.

Keppens, Gil, and Bram Spruyt (2017) “Towards a typology of occasional truancy: an operationalisation study of occasional truancy in secondary education in Flanders.” Research Papers in Education Vol. 32: pp. 121-135. DOI:10.1080/02671522.2015.1136833.

Malcom, Heather, Valerie Wilson, Julia Davidson, and Susan Kirk (May 2003) Absence from School: A study of its causes and effects in seven LEAs. Research Report, University of Glasgow, Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills

OECD (2019) “PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What School Life Means for Students’ Lives.” PISA, OECD Publishing: Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/acd78851-en

Reid, Ken (November 2008) “The causes of non-attendance: an empirical study.” Educational Review Vol. 60, No. 4: pp. 345-357.

Smythe-Leistico, Kenneth, and Lindsay C. Page (2018) “Connect-Text: Leveraging Text-Message Communication to Mitigate Chronic Absenteeism and Improve Parental Engagement in the Earliest Years of Schooling.” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR) pp. 1-14. DOI:10.1080/10824669.2018.1434658.

1 This articles refers to data prior to the interruption to our system resulting from the advent of Covid-19

2 Michael A. Gottfried, (2010) “Evaluating the Relationship Between Student Attendance and Achievement in Urban Elementary and Middle Schools: An Instrumental Variables Approach”

3 Malcom, et al, (May 2003) “Absence from School: A study of its causes and effects in seven LEAs”

Trude Havik, Edvin Bru, and Sigrun K. Ertesvåg, (2014) “Assessing Reasons for School Non-attendance”

Gil Keppens and Bram Spruyt, (2017) “Towards a typology of occasional truancy: an operationalisation study of occasional truancy in secondary education in Flanders”

4 For example; Ken Reid, (November 2008) "The causes of non-attendance: an empirical study."

Malin Gren-Landell, Cornelia Ekerfelt Allvin, Maria Bradley, Maria Andersson, and Gerhard Andersson (2015) "Teachers' views on risk factors for problematic school absenteeism in Swedish primary school students." 

Christopher A. Kearney, Carolina Gonzálvez, Patricia Graczyk, and Mirae J. Fornander (October 2019) “Reconciling Contemporary Approaches to School Attendance and School Absenteeism: Toward Promotion and Nimble Response, Global Policy Review and Implementation, and Future Adaptability (Part 1).”

5 Kenneth Smythe-Leistico and Lindsay C. Page, (2018) “Connect-Text: Leveraging Text-Message Communication to Mitigate Chronic Absenteeism and Improve Parental Engagement in the Earliest Years of Schooling”

Joshua Childs and Ain A. Grooms, (2018) “Improving School Attendance through Collaboration: A Catalyst for Community Involvement and Change”