Improving Pupil Attendance: a Follow-Up Report

25 February 2014

Improving Pupil Attendance: a follow-up report


Mr Kieran Donnelly, the Comptroller and Auditor General, today issued “Improving Pupil Attendance : Follow-Up Report”.

Mr Donnelly said:

“Regular school attendance and educational attainment are inextricably linked.  It is therefore disturbing that around 20,000 pupils missed more than 15 per cent of their lessons in 2011-12.  This equates to almost 6 weeks of lost learning for such pupils.  Less than 4,000 of these pupils were referred to the Education and Welfare Service by schools despite their high levels of non-attendance.”

“Persistent absentees are more likely to under-achieve in their examinations and are seven times more likely to be not in education, employment or training (officially described as NEET) at age 16.  Non-attendance is higher for particular groups such as those entitled to Free School Meals, pupils attending non-grammar schools, Travellers and Looked After Children.”

Main Findings

  • Parents who fail in their duty to ensure that children attend school regularly are effectively forfeiting the opportunity that has been provided for their child to receive an education.  In 2011-12, pupils absent from school for no reason missed around £22 million worth of education.  
  • NIAO reported on the topic of non-attendance in 2004.  Since then, the Department of Education has made some progress – it has improved data collection, commissioned research into improving attendance and issued a number of relevant policy documents and guidance.
  • Overall attendance levels in Northern Ireland schools have improved marginally from 93.6 per cent in 2007-08, when statistics were first published, to 94.2 per cent in 2011-12.  However challenges remain.  The 2011-12 absence rates equate to around 9 days missed per pupil at primary school and 13 days non-attendance per pupil at post-primary school.
  • Non-attendance is higher for a number of groups.  For example:
  • Pupils entitled to Free School Meals (FSMs) have higher absence records and achieve considerably lower attainment levels than pupils not entitled to FSMs.
  • Average levels of absence in non-grammar schools are much higher than for grammar schools.
  • Traveller children are absent from school more than any other ethnic group, missing up to 40 per cent of the school year.
  • Rates of absence are notably higher for Looked After Children in post-primary schools.
  • While overall attendance levels have improved since data was first collected, the level of unauthorised absence has increased.  Unauthorised absence accounts for a third of all absence and is double the rate in England.

A school can make a referral to the Education Welfare Service The five ELBs in Northern Ireland fulfil their statutory duties in relation to school attendance through the Education Welfare Service.   The EWS is a specialist education support service which seeks to help young people of compulsory school age and their families get the best out of the education system.   when a pupil’s attendance falls below 85 per cent.  In real terms 15 per cent absence means that children are missing nearly six weeks of school.  In 2011-12 more than 7,000 primary school pupils and almost 13,000 post primary school pupils exceeded the 15 per cent absence threshold, however only 3,881 of these pupils were referred to EWS.  This means that more than 80 per cent of cases of persistent absenteeism were not referred to the EWS.  Some schools have achieved good or improving levels of attendance despite challenging circumstances.  We visited 12 schools and identified a number of good practice initiatives.  These included early intervention by schools, the effective use of attendance data, engagement with parents and the wider community and the adoption of school attendance policies.


Although pupil attendance has improved since statistics were first collected in 2007-08, levels of unauthorised absence remain a challenge and a number of disparities in attendance rates persist across several groups of pupils. Given that 16,000 cases of persistent absence were not referred to the Education Welfare Service in 2011-12, there is a risk that disengaged pupils could be failed by the system.

It is vital that all our children attend school regularly and make the most of the opportunities that the education system offers to them.  This will not only improve the life chances of our young people but will also ensure that our economy is well equipped to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.