Written evidence submitted by the Attachment Research Community (ARC)




The Attachment Research Community (ARC) is a membership organisation for schools, educational settings and professionals working with children & young people, which aims to promote evidence-based approaches to attachment and trauma awareness. It currently has over 500 school members. As a national charity it works with a number of partner organisations, notably the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH), Social Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association (SEBDA), National Association for Special Educational Needs (nasen), and Nurture UK, as well as a number of academic and research organisations. In June 2022 it launched a ‘Call to Action’ in the House of Commons, sponsored by Edward Timpson MP, with all-party support – see


As outlined in the ARC Call to Action, there is strong evidence for the effectiveness of relational, as opposed to behaviourist ‘sanctions and rewards’, approaches, in supporting students.  This is particularly the case for specific disadvantaged groups, but also advantages the whole school, including staff, parents and the wider community. This is not a ‘soft option’. It involves on the one hand seriously addressing the barriers which prevent students and their families engaging with schools, and on the other ensuring that all students are able to attend, feel safe and are appropriately challenged to achieve their best outcomes (see Scales et al., 2020).


For this reason, ARC was encouraged by the emphasis in Working together to improve school attendance (DfE, 2022) on whole school approaches; understanding the barriers which some individual children and groups face; and working sensitively with parents and other agencies to develop formal and informal support.


However, our experience is that this is not the case in all schools, where ‘zero tolerance’ approaches are actually counter-productive and seriously hampering the school experience of some of our most vulnerable children, especially those in care. This report draws on members’ recent research, in order to answer the Committee’s call for evidence, regarding persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. This research projects involved interviews and correspondence with staff, students and parents on attendance matters.


Vulnerable student perspectives


Brooks (2018) collated student and parent/carer views of non-attendance in Bristol schools (Brooks, 2018) identified six key factors which impact disproportionately on more vulnerable students:



Brooks suggests a number of strategies to improve attendance, which are all implied in the current DfE guidelines, but are not universally adopted in schools:


‘Be glad to see us, not like, you’re 10 seconds late! Wrong shoes! C’mon man!!’

‘They care more about uniform then they do your wellbeing’

‘They can see you coming down the path but if you’re not through the’s so mental!

They should like, make it relevant to your future. What will help me get a job? [shrugs] why don’t we learn about that? If it was more interesting then we’d come in, it’s the same everyday.’

‘Different activities, not all just worksheets and writing stuff down that you don’t understand, like make it so we don’t know what to expect, more hands on.’

Student One: ‘When you come back, at registration, the teacher’s like, why were you off? And you’re supposed to say it in front of everybody! I was at the back, right, and I had to shout it out, it was so horrible.’
Student Two: ‘I heard you, I was at the front – everybody turned round didn’t they.’ Student One: ‘Horrible. I mean, ask me to come up afterwards, that’s what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t do it’.

Who gets it, school or council? It’s a bit cheeky the council taking our money when schools are getting poorer and poorer, we don’t have nothing – why don’t schools have money, if they’re taking it from us?


These issues appeared to have exacerbated following the Covid pandemic: a later, related report (Brooks, 2021) quoted a Year 9 student: ‘School [post Covid] is stricter now: they even control our bladders’. The report found that, following lockdown freedoms, students wanted to be treated more as adults, with agency, to have more access to support, to regain a sense of community and to have a ‘twenty first century’ curriculum which better matched their aspirations and experience.


Issues of mental health and illness


A parent contacted ARC identifying key issues regarding mental health and illness, suggesting the following recommendations (Parker, 2023a)


1              The need for formal recognition of, better training for school staff on and increased referral opportunities for mental health issues:


Often persistent absence is a result of mental health issues and anxiety. Many schools still do not recognise mental health as illness - this needs to change. In our case if my daughter is off due to anxiety - her attendance is unauthorised. If I lied (which I don't) and said she had sickness, it would be authorised. I have discussed this with the school EWO who agreed with me and said the school were not doing what they should. 


A new code for school attendance might be useful to avoid this so that it's not just 'I' for illness or 'M' for medical appointments, but something like 'A' for anxiety or MH for mental health.  This would have a big impact on attendance data as unauthorised absences would appear much lower.


More funding for support services such as CAMHS - would help. I cannot get my daughter into CAMHS because she does not meet their threshold, however, 10 years ago she would have met it. They are now fire fighting due to too many referrals and have had to raise their threshold - we know this is due to lack of funding for the service.


2              Full implementation of the proposed Mental Health Lead role


Significantly, parents/carers are not always aware of the DfE roll out of the 2017 Green paper proposals in this area:


All schools should have a Mental Health lead who is trained in trauma -informed practices and attachment aware. This is not something that many schools know much about at all. (Covid was, for many an adverse childhood experience and trauma)


3              The discriminatory implications of current approaches to attendance data


Striving for 100% attendance is unequitable and discriminatory and not the answer. My other daughter has scoliosis as well as Autism and she often has hospital appointments - although these appointments are authorised, they impact her attendance data. This is discriminating against children who have disabilities, medical needs or general ill health.  Children should not be penalised for being ill. 


Asking schools to publish daily/weekly data will not help. Funding for more EP, EWO and  SEND support for schools might help. Headteachers need to keep the overview of whether attendance is deemed a problem or not - as in, they can decide whether or not a family should be prosecuted - because they know the family and the circumstances. 


4              The need for schools to adopt more flexible responses to support children who have difficulty in maintaining regular attendance


The education system needs to recognise that 8.45 - 3.30 school does not fit well within many families and should be able to be flexible to meet the needs of local communities and families who attend. Perhaps there can be groups who have a sort of flexi system - e.g. core hours in school, other times not. For example, could a child have a later start and still be marked as attending, if their school day missed tutor time and began in lesson 1? This might take the pressure off them and their family.


5              Flexibility in curriculum responses


As with the young people in Bristol, the need for appropriate and relevant curriculum responses, related to their needs and aspirations for qualifications and future careers, was highlighted


Allow flexibility in curriculum offered - some children cannot cope with 9 or 10 GCSEs. Offering functional skills in Maths, English and Science as a general option would greatly support many children at risk of failing. 


Online schooling options should be available as a choice - not only if you deregister your child from a school. So that a child could remain on roll and then attend some/all lessons online while solutions are sought. Otherwise that child may not be able to do GCSEs etc. 


More flexibility for schools to allow external candidates into exams so that any children not educated at school can use their school as an exam centre. I think I found out that we would have to travel to [local city] if we wanted my daughter to take a GCSE and we were homeschooling.  (That's an hour's drive away)


6              Off-rolling


The scandal of parents being persuaded to remove their children from school rolls in order to improve school attendance and examination statistics was highlighted by Ofsted (2018) and in the Timpson Report on Exclusions (2019). This parent’s response suggests that this is still the case in some schools


Many families are forced into home schooling because of their child's poor attendance data. Schools quietly suggest it might support their child better and avoid the fines/ prosecution etc. This is not OK and should be addressed. 


We suggest that this may disproportionally impact pupils in care, as illustrated in the following message to ARC from a foster carer fostering a child whose school is the other side of town, a frequent issue for young people in foster placements, in education:


The current 'zero tolerance' policy on being even a minute late is NOT helping the more vulnerable children - or anyone who has to travel anywhere in [city] traffic, with a drastically cut bus service…. Two detentions last week because the taxi turned up late, the 2nd time he was AT the back gate but not let in and had to walk all the way around the school (a 10 min walk) to the main gate... This is obviously having an extremely harmful effect on a boy with autism and anxiety. 

Parker, 2023b


School responses to attendance issues


In some schools such issues are being addressed. One secondary school assistant head stated:


We try to take a supportive approach to attendance because what we find is, in the past, when we’ve threatened parents with fines and things like that, it just sets up a challenge between the parents and the school. The focus is then removed from the student. So, we tend to get the student in, to see what benefits they are on, whether we’ve got the links with the appropriate services.

Parker, 2022


Another assistant head explained:


I meet with Year 11 school refusers on less than 20% attendance to ensure they leave school with a set of qualifications that can support their next steps. I liaise with our Student Support Centre, Reception team and under-timetabled English and Maths staff to put in additional support for these students when they are not in lessons.


Parker, 2023 c




The extracts from these research projects and background discussions demonstrate the ways in which the insistence on ‘zero tolerance’ approaches, promoted with regard to school behaviour and discipline in many DfE documents, can impact on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. These approaches are coupled with an excessive reliance on performative statistical measures by DfE and Ofsted. As exemplified here, such measures obviate the more pragmatic, child and family centred strategies advocated in Working together to improve school attendance. The joint report in 2017 by the Education and Health Committees and on Children’s Mental Health stated


Achieving a balance between promoting academic attainment and well-being should not be regarded as a zero-sum activity. Greater well-being can equip pupils to achieve academically. If the pressure to promote academic excellence is detrimentally affecting pupils, it becomes self-defeating. 

House of Commons, 2017: 8


This statement is equally applicable to the implementation of measures to improve attendance. We strongly urge the Education Committee to challenge the current contradictory positions at the DfE, and to promote consistent and child-centred strategies for the benefit of all.


Full copies of the detailed reports mentioned are available on request from Dr Richard Parker of the Attachment Research Community at



APPG (2022) All Party Parliamentary Group on Looked After Children and Care Leavers Spotlight Inquiry

Become (2018) Teachers who care

Brooks, K. (2018) Non-attendance: Bristol student responses Bristol City Council

Brooks, K. (2021) Understanding the Student Experience: Students’ talk on lockdown and learning, Bristol, Cabot Learning Federation

DfE (2022) Working together to improve school attendance

House of Commons (2017) Children and young people’s mental health —the role of education: Report of the Education Committee

Ofsted (2018) Off-rolling: using data to see a fuller picture.

Parker, R. (2022) Teacher perceptions of attachment awareness in schools – normative or transformative? PhD thesis, Bath Spa University

Parker, R. (2023a) Private email received I February, 2023

Parker, R. (2023b) Private email received 31 January 2023

Parker, R. (2023c) Private email received 29 January 2023

Scales P.C., Van Boekel, M., Pekel, K. Syvertsen, K. A, Roehlkepartain, E.C. (2020) Effects of developmental relationships with teachers on middle-school students’ motivation and performance Psychology in the Schools. 57(4): 646–677

Timpson, E. (2019). Review of School Exclusions


February 2023