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School attendance rates are dropping. We need to ask students why

Today federal and state education ministers are meeting to talk about school attendance. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare has repeatedly flagged this as a key concern. As he told Channel 7’s Sunrise last week:

We’ve seen attendance at schools drop over the last ten years amongst boys and girls from five-year-olds to 15-year-olds. Whenever I ask the question to the experts, why are we seeing attendance rates drop, I get crickets. That’s not good enough.

We are former teachers who research student disengagement from school. To fully understand and address this issue, we need to speak to students themselves.

What is happening with school attendance?

There are two ways Australia measures school attendance. These are the attendance rate and the attendance level.

The attendance rate is the average number of students at school on any day. This has been declining steadily from 90% in 2014 to 86% in 2022. The further the school is from a major city, the more marked the decline is. There has been a 10% drop for remote schools.

Federal Education Minsiter Jason Clare and his stage colleagues walking at Parliament House in Canberra.
Education Minister Jason Clare and his state and territory colleagues will talk about school attendance on Monday. Lukas Coch/AAP

The attendance level is the percentage of students who are attending for more than 90% of the time. This has also been dropping steadily.

In 2014 eight out of every ten students were attending school for more than 90% of the time. In 2022 only five in ten students were attending at that rate. This suggests there has been a marked increase in the number of students who are missing at least a week of school a year.

Attendance levels are important because if students are missing a significant chunk of lessons, they are not fully engaged in school. More importantly the empty desks keep changing as different students are absent on different days. Teachers are always playing catch-up and students get into a vicious cycle of missing out and not engaging because they have missed out.

Why is this happening?

These indicators are only a blunt measure. We don’t know the overall patterns of those who could be missing for longer periods and why this is so.

Parents and schools are certainly reporting increasing concerns about school refusal or avoidance (when a child regularly fails to attend class) since COVID. The Senate is conducting an inquiry into the issue, with a report due in March.

But if it was only a COVID response we would expect Victoria with the longest lockdowns would fare worst. However, this isn’t the case: Victoria is the only state where government school attendance level is above 50%.

The decline in attendance also pre-dates COVID.


Read more: Back-to-school blues are normal, so how can you tell if it's something more serious?


Our research

One way to address this issue is to talk to the students themselves, to understand what is going on in their lives, both at school and beyond it.

As teachers, we regularly spoke to and worked with students in our schools to reform currriculum and structures to build belonging and connectedness to school. As part of our wider research into alternative and new school designs, we talked to students from the Catholic and independent sectors in South Australia as well as students who attended new flexible schools.

What engaged and disengaged students say

When we talk to students who are engaged in school, they tell us how they fit in, how good they feel about fitting in and how they see themselves staying until the end of their schooling.

They believe their school will support them through to the senior years, they are confident their school will guide them to achieve their career goals, and they are confident their school will help them if they experience difficulties. Looking back on her primary years Lindsay* spoke about the feeling of safety and community:

My primary school only had about 120 kids. It was lovely community school; I grew up with everyone. I know everyone’s parents, if I was sick, I knew that like a friends parents would come over to pick me up from school […].

When we talk to young people who are disengaging or detached from school (meaning they no longer go at all), they tell us they did not feel as though they fitted into school. This can be socially, academically, or a belief the work they are doing at school does not connect with the work they see themselves doing in the future.

They tell us they could not see themselves staying on, they tell us they could not see how their learning was relevant to them and they tell us they didn’t believe their school would (or did) support them as they faced difficulties. They tell us of the disconnect between their lives at home and in the community and their experience of school.

Looking back on his early high school in a mainstream school Axel told us:

Let’s say that they put me in the wrong classes – classes that I didn’t want to do I wasn’t interested in. The more classes they put me in that I wasn’t interested in the more it just deterred me from wanting to go to school.

Why are students disengaging?

Another way to look at this issue is to look at how education policy has changed over the same period. Over the last decade, with the advent of NAPLAN, testing has become much more important in Australian schools.

This is part of a global trend where standardised tests are used as a measure of accountability in education systems. As we have seen with last week’s My School update, the results are published and encourage national and even international competition.

This cannot help but narrow what schools concentrate on and what kind of student they value, if they want to be seen as a “successful” school.

These standardised measures leave little room for principals and schools to cater for the needs of different communities and individual students, who will all have different strengths, weaknesses and interests.


Read more: The My School website has just been updated. What makes a 'good' school?


Schools need to be able to focus on more than tests

School attendance is as complex issue, made more complex by the pandemic.

But research shows if schools are able tailor learning and the day-to-day experience of school to meet the diverse needs of their students, this will help more young people feel like they belong at school. And this will increase the chances they will turn up and stay.

*Names have been changed

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