We all know that school attendance is compulsory for the vast majority of children, but the real question is: if they didn’t have to attend, would they?

We are probably very aware that in a post-pandemic world, there have been significant changes to children’s Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health alongside a shift in parental attitudes to school. These are both likely substantial contributors to the change in school attendance figures.

Attending school is a crucial aspect of education and significantly impacts a student's academic and future life success. Numerous studies have shown a correlation between high attendance rates and improved academic performance. Regular engagement in the learning environment also helps build crucial cognitive skills, educational resilience, and positive social interactions, which, in turn, positively influences a child's academic and social growth. However, there are misconceptions surrounding school attendance. Some believe absences are intentional, resulting from a young person’s apathy. But, the reality is that there are many reasons why children may not attend school, including social anxiety, stressors such as fear of bullying, or struggling academically.

The rise in absenteeism among pupils has been startling. During the autumn term of 2017/18, 4.4% of lessons were missed across state-maintained schools; four years later, 6.9 % were missed. There has also been a staggering increase in persistent absence. In 2017/18, 11.7 % of pupils missed ten or more sessions (defined as half a day of school); in 2021/22, this has risen to 23.5 %.

Interestingly and unfortunately, this is an area where we can finally say we may have ‘closed the gap’. There used to be a significant correlation between deprivation and absence, but this appears to no longer be true. Of course, the individual drivers of absence in socio-economic groups may differ.

It's essential to understand that attending school is not just about the numbers but the dynamics surrounding it. If the numbers, attitudes, and dynamics have all changed, we can’t do what we have always done and expect it to make a difference.

What promotes school attendance and what drives pupil absence?

In the 1950s, Frederick Hertzberg described a two-factor theory in his book The Motivation to Work. He identified the principle that the factors creating dissatisfaction at work (Hygiene Factors) are not the same as, and not opposite to, those that create satisfaction (Motivation Factors).

We should draw from this that the factors that lead to school absence, differ from those that promote pupil attendance and utilise this to reshape how we consider and tackle this growing problem.

The ‘I Can’ Factors of School Attendance

Let’s consider and rename ‘hygiene’ factors as ‘I Can’ factors - those conditions that allow children to attend school. These are not factors that motivate children to attend but are fundamental to their ability to be present.


The human condition drives us towards safety rather than away from threat. Let that sink in a second…we need to make school feel safe to draw children in proactively.Safety is more than ensuring that the building isn’t falling down (we should be able to say this light-heartedly, but it is sadly now a reality for many school heads to consider!); it is about ensuring school is a place of security.

From an Emotional Health perspective, we are talking about physical and psychological safety. This means ensuring the environment and the relationships within it support the neurobiological systems of CARE, SEEKING and PLAY and reduce the stimulation of FEAR, RAGE, and PANIC/GRIEF.


The relationship we have with young people is of paramount importance. Our interactions with others are the most significant indicators and predictors of the safety we now seek to provide. The foundation of this relationship is adult interaction, which should be consistent, predictable, and based on a 'shared power' model that values mutual respect.

Parent/Carer relationship

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major shift in attitudes towards attendance, and it's clear that we need to make a significant change in how we approach this challenge. Let's begin by examining how the wider education system communicates with parents. Firstly, the message that "every day matters" has lost its impact and no longer resonates with parents. Additionally, imposing fines on parents for their child's absence may seem like an easy solution, but it is deeply unpopular and ineffective. In fact, it worsens the situation by damaging the relationship between schools and parents.

While we understand that individual schools cannot control these policies, we should at least review the implementation of fines nationwide and consider abolishing them altogether.

Emotional Health and Mental Wellbeing.

We must also recognise the importance of Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health in attendance. Insufficient funding and support for mental health are evident in both national data and research. Preventative measures and increased funding for early intervention can help reduce the demand for intensive mental health support and improve overall attendance rates. It's time for a comprehensive approach to tackle the attendance crisis.

At the school level, this has to start with a comprehensive understanding of the state of play - an audit that understands school provision and assesses Leadership, Management, Policy, Practice, Environment, and Ethos across the school. Motional’s Organisational Snapshot tools that gather stakeholder feedback, as well as the School Development Planner , aid this comprehensive understanding and enable implementing a proactive framework to implement, track and evidence change.

Fundamental to ensuring children can attend school, is making certain that as we identify barriers, we understand them from the child’s perspective.

The ‘I Will’ Factors of School Attendance

Motivation could be described as the ‘will’ or ‘want’ to attend, these factors are over and above the fundamental ‘I Can’ factors for facilitating school attendance. ‘I Will’ factors are the conditions that drive children to attend school.

The first of these are social bonds; ask any child in the middle of August if they want to return to school in September. If they say yes, ask them why. Invariably, they will utter words to the effect ‘because I’ll see my friends’.

CARE, PLAY, and PANIC/GRIEF are the neurobiological systems underpinning the development of social bonds with adults (as mentioned above) and peer relationships. Focusing on developing these systems is imperative throughout the educational journey, from Reception and Early Years to University.

Peer relationships as a resource

Peer relationships are an underused resource when considering short-term and long-term policy approaches to attendance. Identify those children in Foundation Stage or Early Years with poor ‘Relationship with Others’ as it is unlikely that they will build strong peer relationships, social bonds and friendships. Evidence tells us this has a lifetime impact, but in the context of attendance, this could be a game-changer.

Group Children by Solution, not by Problem!

Often, we group children by the problems they may have. If we want to be solution-focused, identifying the motivator rather than the fact that they are poorly attending is a sensible start. I’ll bet the motivators are not English, Maths and Science for most - so consider Music, Art, Crafts and Sports. You might say, find the ‘driver’ then provide the car!! This is more than just finding the child’s interest, though. It’s about finding their sense of purpose and stimulating the SEEKING system. Later, this interest can be integrated into the core subjects!

Provide opportunities for Achievement

Once you have supported the young person to identify their interests, set some goals.

Goal-setting must move beyond the business-based concept of Smart targeting, to target-setting that is positive, ‘owned’ by the young person, defined by them with a clear starting point and with an understanding of what success is going to feel like! Remember, sensory impressions are far more motivating than abstract concepts of success!

Reward Success

Attending school is not the success in itself; in fact, rewarding attendance may well demotivate those who struggle to attend due to anxiety, chronic illness or because the environment is designed for the neurotypical mind.

Apart from being deeply unfair to those whose ‘I Can’ needs are not being met, it conflates two issues - truancy and absence. These two things are not the same and require wholly different responses.

Reward instead the achievement of personal goals and focus on how that success feels to the young person. Increasing attendance will follow!

How does the day start and end?

Finally, consider motivation and the start of the day. A start to the day that includes activities aligned to their interests is likely to promote attendance; half an hour of a favoured activity and linking this into the core ‘morning’s’ tasks can work well!

Likewise, identifying trends and increasing motivational activity at times of poor attendance (often Mondays and Fridays!) may support an upturn in attendance.

Fundamental to ensuring children will attend school, is making certain we identify the motivators for each individual.

Want to take a deeper look into the I Can and I Will factors of school attendance?

Look out for our upcoming ebook which will explore School Attendance in greater depth - sign up to our newsletter for the latest updates.