Written evidence submitted by Dr Neil Harrison



I am currently an Associate Professor in Education and Social Justice in the School of Education at the University of Exeter.  My submission relates to two studies that I led when working at the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford between November 2018 and May 2022.

The first was a five-year national research study – the Alex Timpson Attachment and Trauma Awareness in Schools Programme (henceforth the ‘Timpson Programme’).  We worked with 305 schools across 26 Local Authorities in England, covering both primary and secondary phases.  The second was a smaller practice-focused study, funded by the Hadley Trust, that engaged in depth with three Local Authorities with well-developed attachment and trauma awareness programmes in their local schools.


Attachment and trauma awareness

The last ten years have seen a grassroots movement among schools who are seeking to become ‘attachment aware’ or ‘trauma informed’ – the terms are largely interchangeable.  This is a whole-school approach that aims to acknowledge the challenges that some young people have outside school and their impact on capacity to learn and engage fully in the school community.  Importantly, it is not an individual-level intervention with specific young people, but a shift in the way the school engages with young people in general.  More information is available through the Attachment Research Community ( and Trauma Informed Schools UK (

There is no specific definition of an attachment and trauma aware school.  Features tend to include a greater emphasis on empathy, emotional regulation, trusted relationships, use of language and restorative approaches.  Each school finds its own ways to integrate this into policies and everyday practices, responding to local contexts and needs.  Schools using this approach seek to be more attuned to the relationship between school engagement and the challenges that a young person may be facing at home.

We know that many young people will experience significant negative events at some point in their childhood, including neglect, violence, maltreatment and poverty; some studies estimate the proportion to be as high as one-in-three.  This can have profound consequences for their ability to build trusted relationships with adults (‘attachment’) that underpin their feelings of security.  It is also increasingly understood that traumatic experiences can influence brain development and a young person’s responses to stressful situations, especially if they are frequent.

These two elements can make it difficult for a young person to understand and regulate their emotions, especially in the context of school.  As adults, we know that we can struggle to work when we are stressed or dealing with difficult emotions and the same principle applies to young people.  This can have a negative impact on their willingness to attend school regularly and to engage fully when they are present – this can lead to ‘school refusal’ or other forms of school avoidance.  This was one of the facets explored by the Timpson Programme.


Background to the Timpson Programme

The Timpson Programme focused on the impact when schools receive training on attachment and trauma awareness.  There is not a specific training package and the Local Authorities involved in the Programme either chose a commercial supplier or devised their own training through the Virtual School and/or Educational Psychology Service.  To be involved in the study, this training needed to last at least one day in total and be delivered on a whole-school basis (i.e. with all staff involved, including non-teaching staff).  The training typically focused on relevant theory from psychology and neuroscience, recent research findings, specific techniques to use with young people and guidance about how to integrate and embed this within the school.  To assess the impact of the training, ‘before and after’ online surveys with staff and young people were used across all 305 schools, combined with in-depth interviews and focus groups in 34 case study schools.  Importantly, the focus was not on the quality of the training or its immediate effects, but on what happened within the school in the following year.


Evidence from the Timpson Programme

The evidence assembled by the Timpson Programme was extensive and wide-ranging – the evidence presented here focuses solely on that relevant to school attendance.  More information is available at

The principal finding was that attachment and trauma awareness training in schools can lead to a profound impact on outcomes for staff and young people, provided this is supported by the wider environment within the school and Local Authority.  The training was not a ‘quick fix’, but a catalyst to making evidence-led changes within the school over a period of one to three years.  These changes typically included a review of behaviour policies, the adoption of techniques like ‘emotion coaching’, the creation of ‘timeout’ spaces, an everyday focus on empathy, trust and relationship building, and enhanced cross-agency working (e.g. with social services)[1].

In a survey of 112 headteachers, they reported that the changes their school had made since the training had led to improvements in attendance (72%), as well as engagement (97%), learning (92%) and attainment (79%); 81% reported a drop in the need for sanctions including exclusion[2].  In their textual comments, they stressed a clear ‘logic chain’ between increased engagement, attendance and attainment – for example:

   “The biggest impact has been the engagement of children and their focus on learning, which hopefully will produce positive attainment results.” (Primary school headteacher)

   “Children have certainly been more willing to engage with staff and as a consequence been attending lessons for longer periods. Staff are approaching situations differently and this has been well received by the children.” (Middle school headteacher)

   “Improved attendance. Reduced negative behaviour incidents. Reduced fixed-term exclusions [and] no permanent exclusions. Improved GCSE outcomes for our most vulnerable learners.” (Secondary school headteacher)

This impact was echoed by other staff in the participating schools.  In a repeated survey of 1,424 staff, respondents felt that the most positive impact had been on young people’s sense of support from staff (92.7%), their wellbeing (90.9%), their enjoyment of school (84.0%) and their ability to communicate their needs (82.8%)[3].  Staff in this survey were less certain about a direct impact on attendance, with 26.9% feeling that it had ‘definitely’ improved, but this may reflect that many did not have the whole-school overview of young people’s attendance afforded to headteachers.

The Timpson Programme had intended to collect and analyse administrative data about attendance before and after the attachment and trauma awareness training in order to triangulate and corroborate the accounts from school staff.  However, the school lockdowns associated with the Covid-19 pandemic irreparably undermined the time series data and this element of the study had to be abandoned.


Hadley Trust study: background and evidence

The purpose of this study was to produce in-depth practice-focused case studies demonstrating how Local Authorities had implemented attachment and trauma awareness programmes with schools in their area.  After a national sweep, three contrasting Local Authorities were identified as showing particularly strong practice in this area and interviews were undertaken with the professional staff leading these programmes and with senior staff in seven schools.  The data from these interviews were used to identify core elements in delivering a high-quality attachment and trauma awareness programmes, including sustained support for change management, strong professional relationships, a shared language, and school practices that stressed relationships[4]

The study also produced a short promotional video drawing on the voices of professionals to explain why attachment and trauma awareness leads to improved school engagement from young people – this can be accessed at



The evidence collected by the Timpson Programme and the Hadley Trust study provides a strong basis for believing that attachment and trauma awareness in schools has a role in improving attendance for young people, especially those with severe challenges in their home lives that makes engagement in school particularly difficult.  This was predicated on a shift towards a more empathetic and relationship-led ethos, supported by changes in school policy and practice.

The evidence present here is regrettably somewhat less strong than it might have been due to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Nevertheless, nearly three-quarters of headteachers reported that the training that their school had received had catalysed ‘everyday’ changes that had improved attendance, as well as reducing the need for sanctions and increasing engagement in learning.

February 2023