The Power of Relationships to Support Absenteeism

The most recent data from the Department for Education shows that pupil attendance remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels. The attendance rate for the first two terms of 2023-24 is 93%; before the Covid-19 pandemic it was above 95%.

Absenteeism is one of the most pertinent issues schools are facing. If young people are not in classrooms, their impact is hamstrung. The 2022 Attendance Audit revealed that persistently absent children accounted for one in four students, more than doubling since 2018/19. 

Meanwhile, June 2022 saw one in 10 GCSE-year pupils in England absent from school each day last year, marking a 70% increase since before the Covid pandemic. The extent of school absenteeism has been described as “a full-blown national crisis.”

The rising cost of living, a lack of social support and structural inequalities have gradually fortified the barriers preventing young people from attending school over the last decade. But it is one factor, greatly exacerbated by the devastating social impact of the pandemic, that has cemented itself as the key driver. 

In February, youth charity stem4 revealed that almost three in 10 secondary pupils are avoiding school because doing so makes them feel anxious. This is backed up by FBB’s own safeguarding data - last year 52% of safeguarding incidents were linked to wellbeing concerns. These findings highlight the scale of the mental wellbeing crisis facing our schools. Young people attend school to learn and to support their development and life chances. 

Increasingly, huge numbers of young people no longer view schools as safe spaces to explore their curiosity and make lasting friendships, but as environments too overwhelming to engage with. 

It’s time for a rethink and a system that prioritises relationships with trusted adults.

What are the political parties proposing?

Both Conservatives and Labour have made tackling absenteeism an education priority in an election year. 

In January, the Department for Education announced 18 new attendance hubs - run by schools with excellent attendance that share practical ideas with other primary, secondary, alternative provision to help boost attendance – bringing the total number of hubs to 32. 

Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have committed to establishing a register of eligible children not in school to increase transparency of those who are electively home-educated, flexi-schooled, or receiving alternative education in an unregistered setting. 

Labour has also pledged to introduce universal free breakfast clubs, additional mental health counsellors to secondary schools, and ‘mental health hubs’ in every community

The current policy proposals may only offer sticking plasters. Government statistics reveal that the situation is most alarming for young people in receipt of free school meals and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Successive lockdowns have ripped up the social contract between parents and schools, with increasing numbers of frustrated parents losing faith in the education system.

If we are serious about reversing this trend - and transforming the life chances of a generation of young people - the deterioration of young peoples’ emotional wellbeing must be viewed through the prism of their socio-economic context and their emotional needs. A therapeutic alliance between young people, practitioners, parents, teachers and schools must also be restored. A radical departure from the one-size-fits-all approach is necessary and relational work is required across every school and institution in the country to rebuild the emotional health of the nation’s young people. 

“I have seen clearly that children aren’t absent from school because they don’t want to learn. On the contrary, they are desperate to learn but everyday thousands of children find themselves without the support that they need to engage in education and attend school.” 

These words from the Children's Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza highlight that it’s time for a system that enables young people to thrive.

What are we doing?

FBB’s view is that improved attendance starts with a trusted adult relationship at school. 

There is emerging research that there is bidirectional causation between poor mental wellbeing and attendance. This is a complicated way of saying that poor mental wellbeing is likely to mean young people don't attend school, and when young people don't attend school, their mental wellbeing gets worse. Our recent research released with Pro Bono Economics showed that a trusted adult can have huge benefits on young people's mental wellbeing.

For young people who avoid school for a complex mix of factors, it's essential we take the time to understand their reasons and adapt to their needs, supporting schools as best we can. Below, we've shared two examples of young people we've worked with who have faced challenges with their attendance, and the practical steps we've taken to support them.


Leona was introduced to the FBB program during a period of heightened anxiety and absenteeism and wasn’t attending school. She received personalised 1:1 sessions to  understand what would make her feel more comfortable at school. Over time, she started attending school more frequently, which helped her establish a meaningful friendship that dramatically improved her attendance to 79%. Consistent support from FBB and school staff, mental health support, and adapting her timetable to suit her needs helped her cope with bereavement and a number of other challenges. Target setting and consistent support from staff helped to maintain a balance between high expectations and achieving personal goals, which really helped drive improved attendance. 


Initially, David attended a number one-on-one sessions so that we could identify his interests, hobbies and favourite sports. This identified lots of ways we could connect with David. In the process of doing that, we also uncovered some of his struggles with school and identified that he had family responsibilities as a young carer. Communication with his teachers and his mum helped us to identify realistic attendance targets which we worked towards by providing incentives. His attendance improved from 23% to over 60%, though challenges like illness and arguments with friends did cause fluctuations. Continuous support and recognising improvements with his teachers and his mum were really important steps we took which encouraged his progress. 

Written by Lewis Harper and Edited by James Reeves

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