Written evidence submitted by Rebecca Reed


Extract from a Research Project - To Explore the Reasons Behind the Persistent Absence of Disadvantaged Children.

Rebecca Reed  January 2022






Parental Separation and Consequent Shared Care

Parental Mental Health

Parents’ Own Negative Experience of School

Child Anxiety

The Impact of Attendance Initiatives


Recommendations and Conclusion





This extract is from a research project carried out in autumn 2022 by a headteacher. It aims to explore some of the reasons behind the persistent absence of children in the disadvantaged group. In this small, empirical study, in-depth interviews were conducted with disadvantaged families, all with a history of persistent absence.

The findings of this research demonstrate some common themes affecting the attendance of disadvantaged children such as; parental mental health, parental separation and consequent shared care, children’s anxiety and parents own negative experiences of school.  Future attendance support should be tailored to individual families, in order to best support them, change patterns of non-attendance and to engage disadvantaged parents fully in the process.

The study uses data gathered from a primary school in the southeast of England with attendance rates broadly in-line with the average for England and Wales. Thirty-four percent of children are disadvantaged and eligible for the Pupil Premium Grant.

Research data was gathered through in-depth, semi-structured interviews. All participants were selected from within the school and were parents of a child/ren who had persistent absence (attendance below 90 percent) during the academic year 2021/22, and had been in receipt of FSM during the last six years. Parents were representative of children in both Key Stages, genders and those with multiple children in the school.

Twelve interviews were completed in autumn 2022. A range of perspectives were included in the study, including the family’s morning routine, SEN, children’s attitudes to school, the family structure, socioeconomic factors, transport and parental experiences of education. Parents were also asked questions about the reasons their child had been absent from school in the past and any current difficulties they were experiencing with attendance.



Following analysis, five main themes emerged:


Illness was the most common reason for children’s absence with one hundred percent of the parents reporting their child/ren had missed time of school in the last year due to illness. This is in line with the DfE data for England over the last five years. When a parent reports an absence for illness, no additional medical information is required to corroborate this and it is authorised by the school. Some parents admitted reporting their child/ren’s absence as illness even when there are other reasons behind it. Parent F:

Afterwards she was just an emotional wreck, it was really tough for her That’s why I just went – ok, family day, and kept her off. I said she was ill.

Parental Separation and Consequent Shared Care

Of the participants, 92 percent were single parents, of these, 42 percent stated that they share the care of their child/ren with another family member; either a parent or grandparent.  With their child/ren staying in another home during the week, family routines were sometimes complex or changeable with factors such as parental work shifts, dictating care on a weekly basis.  Parent C discussed the regular childcare arrangements in her household:

Today, they are going to their dad…and then back again on Friday. He’s with them Wednesday and Thursday and then I’ll have them back home Friday and that’s not every week, that’s every other week and every other weekend. It’s complicated.

The parent went on to speak about how the shared care affects her children and causes them some anxiety, particularly as the arrangement has followed a difficult parental separation.

For some families, shared care affected their routines at home and several parents stated this as a factor in their child/ren’s persistent absence. For example, Parent H described her difficulties in getting her children to school when they stay at their father’s house during the week:

The mornings they are at their dad’s it’s a different story… he’ll drop them back but sometimes he won’t drop them back till late, and they could be not properly dressed or have had breakfast… then bringing them in is a bit of a struggle.

Some single parents cited a lack of support networks as problematic in supporting with issues like school attendance:

When I’m at work as well, I have to rely on the older kids to pick the younger ones up because I can’t get there cause I finish half five. Parent K.

My family is in X (another local town)… they have been very good recently, but I can’t rely on them all the time. I’ve been let down by my mum last minute. Parent A.

Along with persistent absence, 50 percent of parents interviewed also identified that their lateness is an issue – this was a particular issue for some of the families with shared care who acknowledged that their arrangements contributed to the fact they were regularly late.

Parental Mental Health

Parental mental health was one of the strongest themes identified from the data, with 83 percent of participants referencing their own mental health as a factor in their child’s absences.

Seventy-five percent of parents recognised their anxiety as a factor and discussed the impact it has on their child’s attendance. This ranged from parents citing struggling to leave the house themselves or worrying about socialising with other parents in the playground as barriers to their child/ren’s attendance.

Parental anxiety was most strongly evident when linked with children’s chronic medical conditions. All the parents of children with medical conditions, including asthma reported additional anxiety. They spoke about their increased anxiety at sending their child into school which was exacerbated if their child’s condition was worse or if they showed any other indications of illness. Parent D talked about her anxiety about sending her son in with his underlying health conditions. She discussed these worries:

When he gets a cough, he will have full-blown chest infections and then it can lead to asthma attacks and you know… If he’s not well, he does go downhill quickly, very fast, so I’d rather him be at home, so that if that does happen, I can get to him quicker than they would at school.

Parent L also discussed her anxiety about this, suggesting that her son’s ill health as an infant had made her more anxious about sending him into school:

The first year of his life, he was really poorly. He was in and out of hospital. Me and his dad just lived at the hospital. He suffered really badly with his lungs, and bronchiolitis.

She acknowledged the role her own anxiety plays in keeping him at home if she is undecided and how the difference in communication between school and nursery have heightened this:

It’s so different from nursery, we’re still getting used to it. At nursery, we got a five minute rundown of the day. I think I have that anxiety; I don’t want him in all day being poorly. I think it’s just a ‘me’ issue.

Several other parents admitted ‘giving into’ children and allowing them a day off if, they or their child was feeling anxious. They spoke about keeping their child/ren off school if they reported any signs of ill health, even if the parent felt they are probably well enough to attend.


Parents’ Own Negative Experience of School

Half the parents stated that their own experience of school was challenging, identifying issues such as bullying, finding academic work difficult, behaviour, friendship issues or moving between schools as reasons for this.

Parent F recounted her own experiences of school:

No, it (school) wasn’t positive for me no, very tricky. I was bullied quite badly - at primary not as bad, but secondary really badly, I moved four times – between two schools. I didn’t do well in my GCSE’s but I had had a lot of issues with family kind of growing up; I think that played a part in that as well. No interest in learning really.

Several parents recounted how issues such as bullying and challenging home circumstances led to their own poor attendance as parents explained:

I’m actually a care leaver, I was taken into care when I turned twelve so just in general, my general attendance and stuff like that was very hit and miss in my childhood. Parent L


Child Anxiety

Forty-two percent of parents spoke about their child’s anxiety. Where anxiety was a factor, parents raised issues such as friendship difficulties, anxiety around parental separation and bullying.  Parent C discussed the challenge of getting her anxious son into school.

He suffers from a lot of anxiety at the moment, because of everything that’s going on (parental separation)…so we’ll be late because of it…or he’ll probably tell me that he’s not well.

Parent K felt that her son’s anxiety was explicitly linked with him coming into school as she felt it was lessened at other times:

But I think it’s to do with his anxiety, his worrying.’ Cause in the morning, he’s constantly on the toilet, worrying. Over the weekend, he’s fine, and he’s fine in the holidays. I think it’s to do with him coming in.

Parent F articulated the difficulties that she faces, in making a decision about whether or not to send her child into school or not in the mornings:

She actually had a couple of days off last week and I said (to the school) that she wasn’t very well and it was – dad… She hadn’t seen him in a year. So it was a lot, to spend a week with him… afterwards, she was just an emotional wreck, it was really tough for her that’s why I just… kept her off.


The Impact of Attendance Initiatives

Attendance initiatives had little or no impact on the attendance of this group, with many parents demonstrating a lack of awareness of current local and national initiatives. These include attendance meetings, parent incentives, in-school attendance rewards, outside agency attendance support, and fines. Seventeen percent of parents interviewed were unaware of any of the attendance initiatives - even the possibility of being fined or taken to court for their child’s poor attendance.  Fifty-eight percent of parents stated that attendance initiatives did not influence the decisions they made about their child’s school attendance.  

The data showed that the majority of the parents interviewed, saw school attendance as important. Although most parents spoke about actively promoting the need for good attendance to their child/ren, this attitude was not reflected in their actions, Parent F explains:

Generally, I really try hard not to let her have a day off for no reason at all. It’s normally because she’s complaining of feeling poorly and she’s kicked up a right stink in the morning and sometimes (I hold my hands up) I’m like ok, you can stay at home.

Despite having some of the lowest attendance rates many parents saw their child/ren’s attendance rate as acceptable. Several parents did not see the need for support. They spoke of other parents whose children have poor attendance, but did not place themselves in this category.

Parents perceived that they only kept their child off for legitimate reasons, describing ‘only keeping children off when ill’.   Parents did not recognise that their child/ren’s level of attendance was significantly below that of most other children both within the school and nationally and required intervention.

When parents were asked about whether there was anything that could be put in place to support them with school attendance most were unsure and responded ‘don’t know. However, if additional support such as a phone call home during the day to let them know how their child was doing was suggested, most parents were explained that it would help to settle their anxiety if they knew their child was happy and well.   Parent L articulated that she was not aware support like this could be offered by the school:

It’s just completely changed my thought process, that this happens and so he can go in now because I know that I can call up and just go ‘how is he? And, at the end of the day, just have a little rundown. I think I had the anxiety of not being a ‘pester’.



The study found that parents face a range of challenges in bringing their child/ren to school consistently. The reasons for persistent absence of the disadvantaged group are complex, changeable and highly individualised to each family.  The main reason that children do not attend school is illness. However, the results from the study indicate a strong link between parental mental health and persistent school absence in disadvantaged families.  Mental health – particularly anxiety, was an influencing factor in much of the parental decision-making around attendance. For example, parents with poor mental health were more likely to keep children at home if they had a mild illness, said they felt ill, if they felt their child needed time off or were running late.

The link with parental mental health was particularly strong with parents of children who have chronic medical conditions or have done in the past. Even the fear of a medical episode occurring at school, was enough for them to condone an absence. Parents reported these absences as illness, as they knew they would then be authorised by the school. When asked ‘Have you ever not told the school the real reason for your child’s absence’ all the parents said ‘no’. However, in discussion, several parents described giving children a ‘family day’ or ‘some time at home’ if they or their child was feeling anxious, telling the school they were ill. Parental mental health also sometimes affected parents’ ability to bring their child/ren to school through anxiety.

Parental separation and shared care put additional pressure on families and contributed to other problems linked with attendance such as lateness and parental and children’s anxiety. With 92 percent of single parent families among the most persistent absentees, this is clearly a risk factor to be aware of. Families, particularly those with poor support networks or consequent shared care, may require additional support.

Parents own experiences of school and the impact this has on their decision-making around attendance cannot be underestimated. Parents who had poor school experiences and attendance themselves whilst speaking about the importance of school and acknowledging the impact of their own poor attendance, were often highly anxious and acknowledged that they may be more likely to ‘give in’ and keep their child at home, leading to increased absences.

Finally, findings showed that current local and national attendance interventions have little or no impact on parental decision-making and do not support them to increase their child/ren’s attendance.

The way schools interact with disadvantaged families around attendance needs reviewing. Parents welcomed the opportunity to discuss their unique family circumstances, and how the lack of opportunity to do this in the past contributed towards increased absence.  Poor communication between schools and disadvantaged parents may be a factor in the difficulty that schools face in increasing the attendance of this group. There was a view from parents that previous attendance meetings had been a ‘telling off’ rather than being supportive. Parents were open to support, happy to discuss what they felt would help them and were keen to work in partnership with the school.

Early intervention is vital, and simple support measures such as a system of phone calls between home and school to support parental anxiety, if they had been in place earlier, may have prevented attendance levels declining.

The majority of the parents saw good attendance and education as important. Most believed that they were only letting their child have a day off because of genuine illness.  Helping parents to understand what good attendance looks like, supporting decision making and ensuring they understand the long-term implications of persistent absence is vital and needs to form part of future strategies. However, this will need to be implemented in a sensitive, non-judgemental way so as not to damage relationships with these vulnerable parents.

Despite 42 percent of parents reporting their child had some school anxiety, 83 percent of parents reported that their child/ren were felt positive about school,   This difference links closely with the high percentage of parents experiencing anxiety. When children’s anxiety was explored further in the interviews through additional questions, parents acknowledged that the underlying factor was often their own mental health, rather than that of the child.

All the families interviewed are economically disadvantaged, despite this, in all but one case, economic factors were not explicitly identified as affecting their child/ren’s school attendance.


Recommendations and Conclusion



Following on from analysis of the research, there are three main recommendations:



In conclusion, it is essential that schools work in partnership with disadvantaged families, giving them opportunities to have a voice, taking time to both build relationships, and to understand the unique circumstances and the challenges they are facing in increasing their child/ren’s attendance.

It is important not to underestimate the role that parental mental health, especially anxiety, plays in decision-making. Providing mechanisms of support that both acknowledge parents’ anxieties but also offer practical solutions will be vital if persistent absence is going to be addressed.

Schools should recognise the issues associated with attendance, offer non-punitive programmes, and instead, focus on offering bespoke, tailored support, which meets the needs of individual families. Regular review and innovation of the strategies they are employing will ensure support remains targeted and sustainable. Along with spending time developing trusting relationships with parents, ensuring regular communication and attendance review with parents needs to be a priority.

Greater staff awareness of the importance of attendance and the complexities of families with persistent absence is essential when developing future strategies, alongside enhanced training. It will also be important to educate and provide additional training for the school community about the long-term effect of school absence.

February 2023