How to evaluate your school's absence and attendance figures

Read our tips on monitoring and challenging your school's attendance figures by questioning your senior leaders, benchmarking against national data, and understanding how Ofsted will use your data.

Last reviewed on 1 February 2023
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  1. Your board should regularly review attendance data and help leaders focus improvement efforts
  2. Understand what persistent and severe absence mean
  3. Ask your senior leaders questions
  4. Benchmark against national statistics 
  5. Make sure you know the law
  6. Consider the Ofsted criteria
  7. Severe absence may be a safeguarding issue

Your board should regularly review attendance data and help leaders focus improvement efforts

This involves:

  • Regularly reviewing attendance data at board meetings (including looking at school-level trends and benchmarking with other schools)
  • Paying particular attention to pupil cohorts that have had poor attendance historically or face entrenched barriers to attendance. For example, pupils:
    • With a social worker
    • From a background or ethnicity where attendance has been low 
    • With a long-term medical condition
    • With special education needs and/or disabilities (SEND)
    • Who are eligible for free school meals
  • Working with senior leaders to set goals or areas of focus for attendance and providing challenge and support on these areas

See the Department for Education's (DfE's) latest non-statutory guidance on working together to improve school attendance

Read our article on your role in improving school attendance to understand your other duties under the DfE's attendance guidance. 

Understand what persistent and severe absence mean

These are based on pupils' individual absence levels, not by comparison to a national threshold. 

Persistent absence threshold is 10%

If a pupil's overall absence rate is 10% or higher of their possible sessions, they're classified as a persistent absentee. A 'session' is 1 morning or afternoon in school.

You can read more about how this threshold is calculated in the DfE's guidance on pupil absence statistics, paragraph 3.2.2.

Severe absence threshold is 50%

If a pupil's overall absence rate is 50% or higher, they're classified as a severe absentee. The DfE introduced this category in its guidance on working together to improve school attendance in 2022. 

This threshold is calculated in the same way as the persistent absence one.

Ask your senior leaders questions

To scrutinise your school's absence and attendance rates, ask your senior leadership team these questions.


  • What are our persistent absence figures?
  • How does our attendance compare with the national figures?

Groups of pupils

  • Is absence (and persistent absence) more widespread within certain groups of pupils?
  • Are the figures skewed by a small number of pupils?
  • Is there a particular age group/year/class that has a significantly lower attendance rate than the others?

Your school's approach

  • How are we monitoring pupils’ attendance to identify patterns and any concerns?
  • How much of our absence is authorised?
  • What are we doing to promote attendance?
  • What impact are these strategies having?
  • If poor attendance is a problem, what strategies have we put in place to address this? 

Support for pupils

  • How are we supporting:
    • Pupils at risk of becoming persistently absent
    • Persistently absent pupils
    • Severely absent pupils
    • Cohorts of pupils with lower attendance than their peers?

Ask these questions if you're:

  • A link governor for attendance performing a monitoring visit
  • Part of a committee responsible for attendance
  • Any governor, if you're at a full governing board meeting discussing attendance

Benchmark against national statistics 

Download absence statistics for all state-funded schools from May 2010 onwards and compare your school's attendance figures. Here's a summary of the most recent headlines:

 Persistent absentees (10% or more missed)

School type 2016/17   2017/18   2018/19   2020/21  
Primary schools 8.3% 8.7% 8.2% 8.8%
Secondary schools   13.5% 13.9% 13.7% 14.8%
Special schools 28.5% 29.6% 28.8% 48.9%

Severe absentees (50% or more missed)

School type 2016/17   2017/18   2018/19   2020/21  
Primary schools 0.3% 0.4% 0.4% 0.7%
Secondary schools   1.1% 1.2% 1.3% 1.5%
Special schools 4% 4.4% 4.6% 5.6%

The figures indicate the percentage of all pupils on roll. The data is taken from the DfE's 2020/21 pupil absence data – scroll down and click open the 'Persistent absence' section. 

Please note that the DfE data website hasn't been updated to label those who've missed 50% or more sessions as 'severe absentees'. To find this data, look for the section labelled 'Percentage of persistent absentees (50% or more missed)'.

You can also benchmark against local statistics from the 'national and local authority tables', which you can download from the page linked above.

A note on the data

  • 2020/21 data – sessions where a pupil was not attending in circumstances related to coronavirus are not counted as an absence. However, these sessions do count towards possible sessions. During these sessions, these pupils could not physically attend school, but schools were expected to provide immediate access to remote education
  • Special school data 2020/21 – there was a large increase seen in persistent absence in special schools, increasing from 28.8% in 2018/19 to 48.9% in 2020/21. This is driven by the fact that pupils in special schools were prioritised to continue to attend during the national lockdown, but where they did not this was recorded as authorised absence
  • 2019/20 data – the government cancelled the data for the 2019/20 academic year due to the impact of coronavirus

Sixth forms and 4-year-olds are not included

The DfE monitors and reports on absence figures for pupils who are of compulsory school age–  i.e. aged between 5 and 15. 

See paragraph 2.2 of the DfE's guidance on pupil absence statistics

Keep track of the most recent national absence data

Look out for 3 statistical releases each year:

  • Autumn term: usually published in May and features data for the autumn term
  • Combined autumn and spring term: published in October and features data for the previous academic year's autumn and spring terms combined
  • Full year: published in March and features data for the whole of the previous academic year (autumn, spring and summer terms combined)

This is explained in section 1.1.3 of the DfE's guide to absence statistics.

Make sure you know the law

It will be easier to assess whether your school's attendance data and procedures are good if you have a good grasp of the law. 

If you need to know more about the attendance rules, we've summarised them in 1 page.

Remember that neither Ofsted nor the DfE have attendance targets for schools, or numerical definitions of what makes attendance 'outstanding', 'good', 'requires improvement' or 'inadequate'. 

Consider the Ofsted criteria

Think about how your attendance data and procedures would fare in an inspection.

Attendance levels don't automatically correspond to specific Ofsted grades, but inspectors look at attendance as part of the 'behaviour and attitudes' judgement.

This judgement focuses on factors that contribute strongly to pupils' positive behaviour and attitudes - so, factors that give pupils the greatest possible opportunity to achieve positive outcomes. This includes:

  • Having a strong focus on attendance and punctuality so that disruption is minimised
  • Having clear and effective behaviour and attendance policies with clearly defined consequences that are applied consistently and fairly by all staff

Inspectors will focus on:

  • Overall absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups compared with national averages for all pupils
  • The extent to which low attenders are improving their attendance over time and whether attendance is consistently low
  • Pupils' punctuality in arriving at school and at lessons

However, inspectors also recognise the context of the pandemic. Attendance between March 2020 and March 2021 will not impact on inspector’s judgement of the school.

See paragraphs 273, 287 and 288 of the School Inspection Handbook.

The grade descriptors that mention attendance are:

Grade Grade descriptors

 Attendance is not mentioned specifically, but could be considered to contribute towards this descriptor:

  • Pupils consistently have highly positive attitudes and commitment to their education
  • There is demonstrable improvement in the behaviour and attendance of pupils who have particular needs
  • Pupils have high attendance, within the context of the pandemic. They come to school on time and are punctual to lessons. When this is not the case, the school takes appropriate, swift and effective action
  • Attendance is consistently low for all pupils or groups of pupils and shows little sign of sustained improvement

This is set out in paragraphs 412 and 413 of the School Inspection Handbook.

Severe absence may be a safeguarding issue

Significant periods of unauthorised absence from school can indicate that a pupil is at risk from serious safeguarding issues, such as abuse or violent crime. It may also be a safeguarding concern in itself – if severe absence continues after your school has attempted to intervene, this is likely to constitute neglect.

Make sure that staff:

  • Recognise this link
  • Have processes in place to identify and address the issue
  • Report any concerns to the designated safeguarding lead

Article updates

1 February 2023

We updated this article to reflect the Department for Education's non-statutory guidance on working together to improve school attendance. This includes adding information and data about severe absence.

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