Rethinking school attendance is the change educators and families need

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Student attendance rates in Australia and internationally have been declining over the past decade, with significant drops occurring after the COVID pandemic. Given attendance is linked to a range of educational outcomes, such as academic achievement and school completion, these declines mean more students, particularly those experiencing disadvantage, are at risk of falling behind.

Taking action to help address those important issues was the driving motivation behind last week’s airing of the Rethinking School Attendance webinar.

The Smith Family’s Dr Kirsten Hancock, Professor Patricia Graczyk from the University of Illinois and Caroline Fishpool from the South Australian Department for Education explored recent Australian and international declines in school attendance, discussed what’s not working to address this, and highlighted approaches to help students attend school. The discussion was moderated by The Smith Family’s CEO Doug Taylor and aimed to offer insights on evidence-based strategies to get school attendance back on track.

Understanding school attendance rate issues

“In 2022, attendance dropped significantly, and we had questions at the time about how much of that decline was temporary, or part of a longer-term trend,” says The Smith Family’s National Manager of Research and Evaluation, Dr Kirsten Hancock.

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“Data for 2023 was recently released, and happily, attendance increased but it’s still lower than attendance rates in 2021, and further still compared to 2015,” she told EducationDaily.

But as she says has always been the case when looking at reasons for missing school, Ms Hancock says “there a lot of factors that contribute and we can’t point the finger at any one major reason”.

A multi-faceted approach for a complex problem

“There are so many different factors contributing to low attendance, and this is what makes it such a challenging issue. These factors can include family circumstances, bullying or social issues at school, feeling overwhelmed with academic challenges, engagement problems, socioeconomic and transport problems, anxiety and other mental health problems, to name just a few.”

“Unfortunately,” Dr Hancock says, “some of the approaches implemented in the past have been flawed in some way, and some have been counterproductive. It’s worth recognising what we’ve been getting wrong to figure out better ways to move forward.”

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As highlighted in the webinar, what has emerged clearly are examples of what Dr Hancock says doesn’t work – “treating all absences as the same, waiting too long to intervene, inadequate support for student wellbeing, and punitive approaches such as fines”.

“It’s important to figure out which absences matter more, and the functional impact of those,” she told EducationDaily.

“One student might have missed a bit of school, but if their academic and social-emotional measures are on track, then the response might just be a check in. For other students who are struggling with attendance and the academic content, the approach would be more targeted. Focussing on these students helps to make a potentially big problem into something that’s easier to manage.”

Sharing accurate information is vital

Ms Hancock believes that what’s needed is “strengthened research and systems to improve the evidence base of what works in which contexts, and make sure this information is widely available”.

“We need a national discussion of education redesign and attendance expectations to ensure all students can connect a purpose to being in school. If we expect all students to attend school as often as possible, what are our collective responsibilities to students to ensure that they can meet those expectations? If we don’t help students to do that, we’re setting students up to fail,” she told EducationDaily.

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The turnout for this webinar, Dr Hancock says, highlights how important the topic is and how schools, education departments, and other government departments are taking the issue seriously.

“The webinar has provided a wonderful opportunity to change the conversation on how attendance is talked about and managed in Australia,” she told EducationDaily.

But she knows it’s a conversation that needs to continue.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]