Not being school ready on entry impacts school attendance
The Sector > Research > Children who are not school ready are more than likely to have absentee issues: Study

Children who are not school ready are more than likely to have absentee issues: Study

by Freya Lucas

July 08, 2024

Children who are considered by their early years educators to not be ready to move off to school are more than twice as likely to have issues with being persistently absent at some point in their education, a new study from the University of Leeds has found. 


Researchers analysed data for 62,598 children aged 5-13 years from across the Bradford district and compared it with school absence records between the academic years 2012/2013 and 2019/2020 to identify associations between early childhood problems and absenteeism, finding that 67 per cent of all persistent absentees with attendance below 90 per cent were considered “not school ready” when they entered reception. This contrasted with only 37 per cent of children “not school ready” who were not persistently absent.


.For lead author Dr Megan Wood the findings are especially timely given the growing number of children with attendance issues post pandemic. 


“As a society, we are edging towards a school absence epidemic, with many pupils missing out on opportunities to thrive by not attending every day. This has worsened dramatically since the pandemic,” Dr Wood said. 


In the UK, as in Australia, absenteeism is a major concern for school leaders and policymakers, with data from the 2022/23 autumn term showing that nearly a quarter of all pupils missed at least 39 half-day sessions. According to the UK’s Department for Education, this means they are considered a “persistent absentee” with attendance below 90 per cent.


The number of children classified as being “persistently absent” has risen over time, particularly between 2017-18 and 2020-21, with the more recent figures attributed to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These figures have led to a formal inquiry by the UK Government’s Education Committee.


The researchers say there is an urgent need to understand the factors that lead to absenteeism and determine how children at risk of this behaviour can be identified before they disengage from the school system.


Defining and measuring school readiness


In England school readiness assessments involve teachers using a three-point scale (emerging, expected, exceeding) to rate a child’s performance on various areas of development, including physical; personal, social and emotional; communication; maths and literacy. 


Children rated as ‘emerging’ in any of the early learning goals are defined as not being school ready.


The researchers say potential explanations for the relationship between school readiness and absenteeism could be due in part to the engagement levels of parents, with those who are more engaged better preparing their children for the learning environment, resulting in children who are more excited to learn. 


Such parental engagement may continue throughout the child’s school journey, in the form of helping with homework and ensuring children arrive at school ready to learn.


Alternatively, not being school ready may be indicative of underlying needs, such as neurodivergence or mental health issues that are not currently being met, making school difficult for these children.


Concerning long term consequences 


For co-author Professor Mark Mon-Williams the long term consequences of persistent absence issues are ‘frightening’. 


“The UK’s future depends on a well-educated and healthy workforce and the evidence shows clearly that school absence is a major risk factor for poor health in later life,” he said.


“This research shows that we need to act early and how we can identify children at risk before they disengage with school. It also highlights that there are many reasons why children are absent, and suggests we need evidence-based responses tailored to individual circumstances to address the crisis.”


Researchers identified a number of underlying risk factors in terms of persistent absence, including: 


  • Ethnicity 
  • Eligibility criteria for free school meals
  • Socioeconomic status


“It is often too late to intervene once the problems have already begun. Instead, preventative measures should be adopted to avoid children disengaging from school in the first place,” Dr Wood said.


“These findings demonstrate how we can use existing data – readily available to schools and teachers – to highlight the pupils who may need additional support to keep them engaged with school, even prior to problems arising.”


“We urge policymakers to encourage the use of such data within schools. By identifying need early, we can ensure all pupils are provided the opportunity to grow and develop the skills needed to function within society.”


Access the findings in full here

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