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Why attendance is a safeguarding priority

In this blog, Sara Griffiths MBE, a national expert on school attendance with over 35 years’ experience in attendance, early help and safeguarding, explains how the issues of safeguarding and attendance are intertwined, and offers recommendations on effective practice for schools and education settings.

“Attendance is everyone’s business” is the principle at the heart of the DfE’s guidance ‘Working together to improve school attendance’, published in May 2022. The title mirrors its guidance ‘Working together to safeguard children’. For both of these, partnership working and ensuring consistency of practice are crucial to ensuring that schools, local authorities and trusts support the safeguarding of children. 

The school attendance guidance is not yet law. The Schools Bill was pulled, but it’s expected that the attendance elements will go through into statute. In the meantime, there are very clear expectations in place for September 2023.

The new ‘Keeping children safe in education’ guidance has recently been published and comes into force from September 2023. Absence from school has always been flagged as a potential risk factor in this document. It’s notable that the guidance has now changed its terminology and children missing from education are now defined as children “who are absent from education”, with an emphasis on early intervention, stating specifically “This includes when problems are first emerging …”.

How are attendance and safeguarding interlinked?

This reinforces the fact that you cannot separate the management of attendance and safeguarding in schools. Where attendance and absence are closely monitored, where schools are inclusive, supportive and welcoming, where staff are well trained, and there are robust, effective systems in place to deal with attendance issues quickly and sensitively, then schools are well equipped to keep children safe.

A child who is not in school is not achieving: development, social and emotional wellbeing and safety may all be compromised. If we don’t know where children are, how do we know if they are safe?

We are in the midst of an attendance crisis. 86,000 children were recorded as home-schooled in the spring term in 2023 compared to 55,000 in the spring of 2022. School attendance data published on 1 June 2023 indicated that there was a persistent absence rate of 22%. Prior to COVID, our persistent absence rate was 10.9% in the 2018-2019 academic year.

We’re all working hard to support pupils back into school and keep them safe. So, what’s best practice for schools in linking attendance and safeguarding?


Your designated safeguarding lead and attendance champion must be in constant communication about children who are absent. Track, monitor, and follow up carefully – ”every child, every absence, every time.” Meet, share information and work closely with other leads in your school, such as those for pupil premium and SEND, to ensure that you have a full picture. Never assume. Pupils with long-term illnesses and/or complex health needs require regular follow-up and support too. A serious case review for Child M, Harrow stated:

“It appears that no formal quantification or notification to the local authority of the extremely extensive (and possibly ‘authorised’) periods of child M’s absence from Secondary School was completed. The practitioner event highlighted the challenge of balancing attendance with the complex and frequently changing needs of pupils with a significant levels of disability.”

Harrow Safeguarding Children Board, 2021 ‘Child Safeguarding Review Practice: Child M’

Home visiting

This is so important, both to build relationships and to get an understanding of a child’s family situation. Don’t neglect it. If you have parents whose child has sporadic absence and so doesn’t hit radars for 3, 5, or 10-day continuous absence, would you visit? Particularly where parents are uncommunicative, those absences need following up with a visit. How else will you know what’s happening for that family? Have a look at an analysis of serious case reviews.

“A child’s absence from school can often be an early indicator of an increased need within in a family. Procedures for non-attendance at school need to highlight potential safeguarding concerns.”

NSPCC, 2022 ‘Neglect: learning from serious case reviews’

Remember, a child who is not flagged as ‘vulnerable’ in your school is a child with no known vulnerabilities. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities around following up absences and home visiting.

Recording your work

Make sure you’re clear about recording your attendance work and discussions. How does this interface with your safeguarding recording? Which staff can see which records? Persistently absent (10% or more) and severely absent (50% or more) pupils should have plans in place. Where are these held and does everyone know?

The larger the school and the more staff you have, the more important this is. Although it’s also important to remember the “need to know” principle. Be clear and ensure everyone knows who needs to. Some of these plans may be simple, in-school plans. Others will involve wider partners and may include social work and early help colleagues.

“In line with early help principles, the family should receive a single assessment, plan, and where necessary, a single lead practitioner. This should be from the team or service best placed to support the family and their needs.” (DfE, 2023 ‘Working together to improve school attendance’)

Accurate registers

It’s very important that anyone who codes absence understands and is properly trained to do so. The register is a legal document and using some codes means that the school is saying that they agree that the pupil is safeguarded and/or supervised by someone approved by the school.

Patterns of absence and punctuality need to be checked – what might they be masking? For example, absences may raise wider issues regarding an individual child’s welfare and safety, such as FGM, extremism, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, risk of abuse or young carer responsibilities.

Make sure your coding for part-time timetables and attendance at alternative provision is accurate and legally compliant.

Pupil movement

Children missing education (CME) processes must be rigorously followed using your local authority procedures, and must record all in-year removals from your roll, with an explanation as to how they meet the reasons given under The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006. This information should be shared with governors, and Ofsted will want it, too.

Finally, be as professionally curious about absence from school as you are about safeguarding, for all the reasons outlined above. Talk to parents, talk to pupils. Use open questions to find out what’s happening for them and offer the right support, but challenge where needed too. Ofsted recommends:

“Listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate.” (Ofsted, 2022 ‘Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence’)

Paragraph 99 of the 2023 ‘Keeping children safe in education’ says schools should have policies in place which include appropriate safeguarding arrangements “to respond to children who are absent from education, particularly on repeat occasions and/or for prolonged periods.”

Attendance is everyone's business in exactly the same way as safeguarding is. Never assume.

The National College has just launched a series of webinars on ‘Keeping children safe in education’ 2023, which explain your statutory priorities with regard to safeguarding, online safety and mental health for the new academic year.

We also offer a range of resources on attendance in schools and education settings to inform strategy, help you implement best practice and improve attendance.

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.

Further information

DfE, 2023 ‘Keeping children safe in education’

DfE, 2022 ‘Working together to improve school attendance’

DfE, 2022 ‘Working together to safeguard children’

Ofsted, 2022 ‘Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence’

NSPCC, 2022 ‘Neglect: learning from case reviews’

Harrow Safeguarding Children Board, 2021 ‘Child Safeguarding Review Practice: Child M’