Written evidence submitted by Dr Will Cook


Background: This submission draws on the research project ‘Disadvantage in Early Secondary’ (Cook et al, 2020) funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University from 2018-2021. This project consisted of quantitative analysis of educational trajectories over the secondary school transition and an evaluation of policies to reduce education inequalities in this age group, those being: catch up provision; year 6 to year 7 summer schools, and gifted and talented provision. The project was led by Dr Will Cook, Senior Lecturer in Economics and head of the Applied Economics Research Cluster. This submission is specifically in response to the invitation for evidence on:

      The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils

      The role of the Holiday Activities and Food programme and other after school and holiday clubs, such as sports, in improving attendance and engagement with school.

Trajectories of absence and disadvantage

Level of absence and persistent absence tend to increase as pupils get older, with school absence particularly increasing over early secondary (years 7-9). Disadvantaged pupils have higher rates of absence throughout schooling. However, our research using the National Pupil Database found that almost all the aggregate increase in school absence during early secondary school was due to disadvantaged pupils[1]; for other pupils, school absence barely changed between primary and secondary (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Absence rates, years 5 to 9 for ever-FSM (eFSM) pupils and all other pupils (cohorts that started secondary school 2012-2014)

This divergence in absence trajectories is likely to have a long-term effect on GCSE performance: our research found that around a fifth of the attainment gap at GCSE between disadvantaged pupils and their peers could be associated with their school attendance in early secondary schooling, even after controlling for factors that are known to affect GCSE performance (e.g. prior attainment).

The implications of this work are that:

-          Early secondary school is a key point to target interventions to encourage school attendance; reactively targeting year 10-11s may be too late.

-          The current high levels of school absence in early secondary are likely to be reflected in the attainment gap at GCSE in the future when these cohorts complete their GCSEs.

Drivers of school absence

Academic literature points to several reasons why a pupil may choose to be absent. However, one strong factor is the extent to which a pupil feels attached to their school and schoolwork (Kearney, 2008 more recent?). In our study we analysed data from the Millennium Cohort Study to test whether indicators of school attachment changed between the ages of 11 and 14. We found on almost all indicators, school attachment decreased on average. However, the decreases were much more pronounced for pupils from low-income families. We hypothesise that this widening of the school engagement gap’ over early secondary is a driver of the widening gap in school absence outlined earlier (and by extension, a driver of the attainment gap)– an idea that has been proposed in previous DfE research (DfE, 2011). Therefore:

-          School absence interventions should focus on school engagement, peer relationships and parental support.

Another finding from our work is that pupil absence can be modelled to identify pupils that are at the highest risk of increasing levels of absence, therefore we also recommend that:

-          Interventions should proactively target at risk pupils before absence problems arise, rather than the current emphasis on reacting to high and persistent absence.

Interventions to improve school engagement

As part of this project we evaluated whether the provision of summer schools for disadvantaged pupils in the summer between year 6 and year 7 in 2012 had any effect on early secondary school attendance. Our conclusion was that these summer schools had zero effect on subsequent school attendance. There are several likely reasons for this: i) the attendance at summer schools was lower than expected; ii) schools were free to deliver whatever content they wanted, as such there was no clear theory of change between summer school activities and subsequent school attendance.

-          Out of school activities to increase school engagement need to be clearly focussed on increasing school attendance and themselves need to ensure that they are well attended, possibly through incentives


Current work

Dr Cook is currently working on the evaluation of an initiative in 2006 which targeted schools with high levels of persistent absence. Preliminary results show that this initiative significantly decreased absence.



Cook, W., Shaw, B. and Morris, S. (2020). ‘Disadvantage in Early Secondary School’. Report for the Nuffield Foundation

DfE (2011) A profile of pupil absence, Available at :

Kearney, C. A. (2008) School absenteeism and school refusal behavior in youth: A contemporary review. Clinical Psychology Review, 28, 451-471.

February 2023


[1] Defined in this part of the analysis as pupils who had ever been eligible for Free School Meals during their schooling.