Mohn Centre Blog: Samreen Shah - Understanding School Policy and Attendance


Empty classroom seats

Samreen Shah, Mohn Centre Practice Partner, shares her insights on school policy and the impact this has on attendance rates of young people.

The Mohn Centre for Children’s Health and Wellbeing has recently been working with Samreen Shah to better understand the intricate relationship between education and health. With over two decades of experience in diverse educational settings, Samreen has established herself as a staunch advocate for inclusive education. Beginning her journey as a secondary school teacher in 2000, she has since taught in inner-city schools in London and internationally in Bahrain. Specialising in teaching young people with mental health needs, dyslexia, and other special educational needs, Samreen is committed to providing equitable opportunities for all learners.

Photo of Samreen Shah

As the former Head of Site of a Hospital School in London, Samreen led the institution to outstanding OFSTED ratings, showcasing her dedication to excellence in education. Additionally, she is the founder of Education Allies, a consultancy devoted to supporting parents and young people facing challenges in educational settings. Through Education Allies, Samreen is dedicated to breaking down barriers in education and ensuring that every pupil has access to the best opportunities available.

Recently, Samreen has been serving as a practice partner at the Mohn Centre. Her interdisciplinary approach underscores the importance of considering both educational and health factors in addressing challenges such as school attendance. The following post outlines her reflections after investigating school policy, attendance and the impact on children and young people’s health.

The recent explosion in school absenteeism has far-reaching implications for both academic achievement and mental well-being. According to the Children’s Commissioner[1] approximately 1.8 million children and young people in the UK are persistently absent from education. Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS)[2] indicates that good GCSE results significantly enhance future prospects, including higher education attainment and improved health outcomes, so absenteeism which jeopardises attainment can have hugely detrimental impacts.

Despite ongoing efforts to address absenteeism, certain groups, such as pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), continue to experience elevated levels of non-attendance. Interestingly, while the pandemic has not exacerbated overall absence rates for these groups, there has been a notable increase in persistent absence in other groups, particularly among female pupils.

Research from University College London (UCL)[3] reveals a disproportionate impact on girls’ mental health during the pandemic, with heightened psychological distress, self-harm, and suicide attempts reported, possibly exacerbated by additional caregiving responsibilities taken on by female students.

From my 25 years’ experience in education, I know this issue is not new. During my tenure at a hospital school for young people diagnosed with anorexia, absenteeism resulting in school refusal was a common challenge. Some students found it difficult to even attend our school on hospital grounds. Nevertheless, with dedicated efforts, we successfully rehabilitated many of them back into education, either their original school or alternative settings. For these students, the perception of inadequate support from their schools often fuelled their reluctance to attend.

My collaboration with the Mohn Centre, which focuses on promoting lifelong health in urban children and young people, has raised questions about how school culture can impact on attendance. Dr Dougal Hargreaves from the Mohn Centre was interested in the role children’s mental and physical health needs can play in absenteeism, which prompted me to examine what school policies regarding attendance could reveal. I set about investigating this, looking at whether an approach could be developed to distil something of the school culture from this source and identify potential correlations with patterns of attendance.

As a scoping exercise, I examined attendance policies from ten schools in one London borough, scoring them based on their level of supportiveness, provisions for declining attendance, parental support, and punitive language. I then used DFE data to find their persistent absence rates, and cross-referenced these with an average of 10 statistically similar schools identified using the FFT database. Initial analysis indicates that some policies use a distinctly punitive discourse, and this often correlates with higher persistent absence.

For instance, one primary school used punitive language such as ‘poor punctuality is embarrassing’. There was no mention of support for parents or for children with medical conditions. The school had a persistent absence rate 10.6 percentage points higher than the average of 10 similar schools. However, another primary school, a stone’s throw away, clearly had in its policy an understanding of children struggling with attendance stating ‘we recognise that there are many reasons given for school non-attendance. Some of these are school based such as poor literacy, anxiety about work, bullying, dislike of particular teachers or a belief that the curriculum is irrelevant.’ They had a persistence absence score 4.7 percentage points lower than the average of 10 similar schools.

While this research is preliminary, its implications are profound. It underscores the significance of school policies in addressing absenteeism. Policies reflect the commitment of school leadership to their students and community, shaping the support systems available for both students and teachers dealing with persistent absence. Surprisingly, many policies lack provisions for extenuating circumstances contributing to absenteeism or mechanisms to support students' return to school.

In my own experience, addressing school absenteeism successfully requires a holistic approach, starting with the formulation of informed and supportive policies. Merely threatening fines is inadequate and fails to address the underlying issues. Moving forward, educators and policymakers must prioritise supportive measures to foster a more inclusive and engaged learning environment.

There are practical steps we can take towards this. The methodology developed in this scoping study could be applied to identify schools with comparatively low persistent absence rates, and the policies and strategies they have in place. These could offer valuable insights for addressing absenteeism nationwide, working towards ensuring every child has access to quality education, regardless of their circumstances. 





Charlotte Gredal

Charlotte Gredal
School of Public Health


Child-health, Education, School-of-Public-Health, Health-policy, Mental-health
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