Sending parents ‘nudge’ letters can boost attendance – report

But there is a lack of evidence overall about which methods work best, study finds.

16 March 2022

Sending parents “nudge” letters about their child’s poor school attendance can help reduce absenteeism, a new report has found.

But overall there is a lack of evidence about the best methods of ensuring pupils attend school.

The review of findings from 72 studies, carried out by the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), of how to improve pupil attendance explored eight different methods.

It looked at mentoring, communication with parents, meal provision, extracurricular activities, punishments or rewards, behaviour interventions, targeted approaches and teaching social and emotional skills, as well as other interventions that did not fit into these categories.

One intervention which sent parents “nudge” letters to improve attendance, focusing on the number of schooldays their children had missed the previous year, was found to have had a positive impact on boosting pupils’ attendance in school.

The letter focused on the importance of pupils’ attendance for their learning and the wider school community. It was also translated into the most commonly spoken languages of families in the area.

Another positive impact involved providing intervention and support from social workers for pupils with persistent absenteeism, such as providing an older “walking buddy” to accompany them to school if lack of transport was an issue.

The paper noted that all but three of the studies took place in the United States, and they were all carried out before the pandemic.

It concluded there was a lack of clear evidence about what works in reducing absenteeism, with both the EEF and Youth Endowment Fund using their new funding round to develop evidence on effective methods for raising attendance.

The paper noted that attendance is a growing issue – in 2019/20, poor attendance was reported as 4.9% overall, with special schools having a higher rate equal to 10.5% and persistent absence at 13.1% in England.

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said: “We know that pupils who are persistently absent from school are less like to achieve well academically.

“But as today’s new evidence review shows, we know much less about the best ways to improve attendance.

“While the research finds some positive impacts for approaches like engaging with parents and addressing the individual needs of pupils, overall, the evidence on what works for reducing absenteeism is weak.

“Teachers deserve a much clearer picture of how best to support their pupils who are persistently absent. Our new funding round with the Youth Endowment Fund will help fill some of these evidence gaps, by identifying and evaluating promising interventions, programmes, and approaches.”

Jon Yates, chief executive of the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF), said: “Being away from school not only limits a child’s ability to succeed academically, but also puts them at risk of criminal exploitation or trapped in dangerous home environments.”

“Absences from school means that children can’t receive the support they might need from their teachers or pastoral staff, which could help to keep them from harm. Simply put, to keep children safe, we need to know how best to keep them in school.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the “pupils most likely to be absent from school are often those who are vulnerable and struggle the most in education”.

He added that improving these pupils’ attendance was “vital to improving their outcomes and life chances”. While schools worked hard to do this already, the EEF findings showed they lacked firm evidence about which approaches worked.

“However, this issue is not only about the approaches that are used, it is also about the resources that are available,” he said.

“Over the past decade, central government has decimated the funding for local authority education support services, reducing the capacity of these services to support pupils and parents and to tackle persistent absence. At the same time, it has squeezed school funding, making it harder for schools to provide pastoral support for pupils who are facing challenges and barriers.

“The Government is currently placing a big focus on improving attendance, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic, and it is right to do so. But it must recognise that effective and sustainable intervention on a national scale requires an appropriate level of investment.”

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