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Key themes

Attitudes to learning and attendance


A young girl playing in a playground outside a school

In 2021-2022, we saw an increasing demand for well-being and mental health support across educational settings, and school attendance, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged learners, remained below pre-pandemic levels (Welsh Government, 2023a). This demand for support persisted in 2022-2023, with attendance continuing to remain too low and leaders reporting that learners continued to struggle to re-adjust to school life. Leaders and staff continued to place a strong emphasis on supporting the well-being of learners. Approaches to supporting well-being often had to evolve in response to the developing needs of children and young people following the pandemic.

When comparing sector reports from the period before the pandemic (2018-2019) with our reports for 2022-2023, comments around well-being and behaviour were not markedly different. For example, in 2022-2023 most children were happy, secure and eager to learn in non-maintained settings. In primary schools, most pupils enjoyed school, were enthusiastic about their learning and behaved well. In secondary schools, many pupils engaged positively with their learning. A minority of pupils were sometimes content to remain passive in their lessons and a few pupils disrupted their learning and that of others. Across pupil referral units (PRUs), pupils felt that strong working relationships with staff helped them feel safe, secure and well cared for. Generally, inspection reports referred to a similar proportion of pupils showing positive attitudes to learning and displaying good behaviour in 2022-2023 as during the years directly before the pandemic.

It is difficult to draw direct comparisons between what pupils said about behaviour in our pre-inspection questionnaires from 2018-2019 and 2022-2023 as the wording of the questions and format changed as we resumed inspection following the pandemic. Questionnaires are one source of evidence used during inspections to evaluate well-being and attitudes to learning. Findings are triangulated with other evidence sources, including conversations with groups of learners, discussions with teachers, and the views of parents.

Questionnaire results for pupils in maintained primary, secondary and all-age schools in 2018-2019 and 2022-2023 showed the following:

School pupils wearing blue uniforms with raised hands in a classroom

Figure 1: Comparison of responses to the statement ‘Other children behave well in my class’ in learner pre-inspection questionnaires, Primary, 2018-2019 and 2022-2023

Primary: In 2022-2023, almost 70% of pupils agreed that other children behaved well in class all or most of the time. In 2018-2019, 75% of primary pupils strongly agreed or agreed that other pupils behaved well in class.

Figure 2: Comparison of responses to the statement ‘Other children behave well during playtime/breaks and lunchtimes’ in learner pre-inspection questionnaires, Primary, 2018-2019 and 2022-2023

Primary: In 2022-2023, 68% of pupils agreed that other children behaved well during breaks and lunchtimes all or most of the time. Seventy-two per cent of primary pupils strongly agreed or agreed that other pupils behaved well in class in 2018-2019.

Figure 3: Comparison of responses to the statement ‘Other children behave well in my class/lessons’ in learner pre-inspection questionnaires, Secondary, 2018-2019 and 2022-2023

Secondary: In 2022-2023, 47% of pupils agreed that other children behaved well in lessons all or most of the time. Another 41% agreed that pupils behaved well some of the time. In 2018-2019, 47% of secondary pupils strongly agreed or agreed that other pupils behaved well in class.

Figure 4: Comparison of responses to the statement ‘Other children behave well at playtimes/breaks and lunchtimes’ in learner pre-inspection questionnaires, Secondary, 2018-2019 and 2022-2023

Secondary: In 2022-2023, 48% of pupils agreed that other children behaved well during breaks and lunchtimes all or most of the time. Another 38% agreed that pupils behaved well some of the time. Forty-seven per cent of secondary pupils strongly agreed or agreed that other pupils behaved well at playtimes and lunchtime in 2018-2019.

Although pupil behaviour as reported in inspection reports and questionnaires remained broadly similar to the picture before the pandemic, many primary, secondary and all-age schools reported experiencing pupils demonstrating more challenging behaviours. For example, in primary schools, leaders reported more pupils struggling to regulate their emotions and having to put provision in place to support them. In secondary schools, leaders reported more pupils struggling with issues such as anxiety, weaker social skills, low engagement and poor mental health. These issues also contributed to the reasons why some pupils did not re-engage well with their learning following the pandemic. This has impacted on attendance. Leaders also reported that pupils’ behaviour in unstructured time, such as breaktimes and lunchtimes, was more challenging than it was prior to the pandemic. This included an increase in incidents of aggressive and authority-challenging behaviour. This was reflected in the increases of both fixed term exclusions and permanent exclusions seen in all maintained sectors. The rate of fixed term exclusion (five days or less) increased from 39.0 in 2018-2019 to 50.6 exclusions per 1,000 pupils in 2021-2022, while the rate of fixed-term exclusions (over five days) increased from 1.7 in 2018-2019 to 1.9 per 1,000 pupils in 2021-2022. Permanent exclusion increased from 0.4 (2018-2019) to 0.5 per 1,000 pupils in 2021-2022 (Welsh Government, 2023b).

Where secondary schools had responded particularly effectively to the well-being needs of their pupils, they had considered how to adapt their provision to respond to their pupils’ evolving needs. They worked purposefully, using expertise they had developed internally and with a range of external agencies to tailor support for pupils. They effectively evaluated provision, including their curriculum offer, to ensure that it met the needs of all pupils. They carefully re-established the routines of the school day to support pupils to engage with their learning. However, in a very few instances this led to over-use of reduced timetables as part of pastoral support plans which remained in place for extended periods.

During 2022-2023, local government education services continued to respond to challenges left by COVID-19. This included support for schools with behaviour and attendance issues that were over and above what was common before the pandemic. Generally, local authorities reported an increase in the referral rates for educated other than at school (EOTAS) provision, with 2,396 pupils accessing some kind of EOTAS provision in January 2023. Of those pupils, 1,891 were mainly educated outside school with PRUs being the most common form of alternative provision. Between 2018-2019 and 2022-2023, there was an increase in the numbers of primary and younger secondary-aged pupils attending EOTAS provision (Welsh Government, 2023c). Evidence from 2022-2023 noted that most staff in PRUs understood arrangements to promote positive behaviour and succeeded in applying valuable behaviour strategies with pupils. As a result, pupils’ behaviour whilst attending the PRUs inspected was appropriate.

In June 2023, we published a thematic report on the curriculum experience of pupils educated other than at school (Estyn, 2023). We noted that too many primary and younger aged secondary pupils remained with EOTAS providers over the long term. As a result, only a very few of these pupils successfully returned to mainstream school. The main barriers to successful reintegration included the increasing level and complexity of pupils’ needs. In particular, their social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs and their social, emotional, behavioural difficulties (SEBD) as well as any underlying additional learning needs (ALN) (p.2).

School pupils in a school playground

Pupil absences

The causes of pupil absence are complex and multifaceted. Focus group research conducted with parents in England identified a number of factors influencing non-attendance. These included changing parental attitudes to the importance of attendance, pupils’ mental health, increasing social acceptability of term-time holidays, the cost of living crisis, and breakdowns in the relationship between school and families, especially where sanctions are used (Burtonshaw and Dorrell, 2023, p.12).

The following commentary on attendance is based on two different data sets. For secondary age pupils we use annual verified data on absenteeism from secondary schools (Welsh Government, 2023d). This is the latest in the series of annually published data that were reinstated following a three-year pause between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 due to the disruption of the pandemic. As the comparable validated primary phase data will not be available until Spring 2024, for primary aged pupils we have used figures from the Welsh Government’s weekly collections of schools’ attendance data (Welsh Government, 2023a). This data set is provisional, unverified, and not based on the same definitions as the full year validated data to be published in Spring 2024. It should be treated as an indicator of attendance that is subject to amendment.

The secondary phase data accounts for secondary school aged pupils in local authority maintained secondary and all-age schools, the primary phase data accounts for primary aged pupils in local authority maintained primary, all-age and special schools.

The unverified data suggest that attendance rates in 2022-2023 were relatively consistent across the primary school age range in Wales, at around 91%. However, attendance was lower for each successive year group from the beginning of secondary school (Year 7) onwards, with Year 11 having the lowest rate of attendance at around 84%. This appears consistent with research by John et al about absences in Wales, which found that rates of absenteeism increased with age (2021, p. 2). The data shows that this trend was largely due to higher rates of unauthorised absences among older pupils, with over 6% of Year 11 sessions being missed due to unauthorised absences, compared with just over 2% among primary age pupils.

Figure 5: School absences by year group, 2022-2023

Sources – Welsh Government, 2023a (primary aged pupils) and Welsh Government, 2023d (secondary aged pupils)

Note – Attendance data for primary age pupils is based on the Welsh Government’s weekly collection data. This data is unverified management information. This data is for pupils in Year 1 to Year 6 at maintained primary, all-age and special schools. Verified primary data for the 2022-2023 year will be available in Spring 2024. Secondary data is from the Welsh Government’s verified annual collection of attendance data. It includes data for pupils in these school years in maintained secondary and all-age schools.

As reported in its overview of the 2022-2023 secondary attendance data (Welsh Government, 2023d), in comparison to the pre-pandemic rate, the percentage of half-day sessions missed by secondary school-aged pupils broadly doubled to reach 12.5% in 2022-2023.

Figure 6: Absences among secondary school age pupils according to absence type, 2013-2014 to 2022-2023

Source – Welsh Government, 2023d

Note – The years where the Welsh Government was able to publish verified data are indicated by circular markers on the lines.

The absence rates of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) were substantially higher than those of pupils not eligible for free school meals; this difference was most pronounced among secondary-school aged pupils.

Figure 7: Absences among secondary school age pupils in 2018-2019 and 2022-2023 according to FSM eligibility

Source – Welsh Government, 2023d

The proportion of sessions missed by secondary school age pupils in 2022-2023, of 12.5%, was double the pre-pandemic rate. The overall absence rate for 2022-2023 was 20.6% among pupils eligible for free school meals (eFSM) and 10.2% for those not eligible. On average, this equates to each pupil eligible for free schools missing one day of school per week, and each pupil not eligible missing one day per fortnight. During the pre-pandemic year of 2018-2019, pupil absences were broadly half these levels at 10.5% for those eFSM, and 5.3% for those not eligible. It follows that the 2022-2023 gap between the absence rates of pupils eligible for free school meals and those not eligible, of 10.4% points, was twice as wide as the pre-pandemic gap in 2018-2019.

Among secondary school aged pupils, persistence absence rates were of particular concern. Overall, the proportion of pupils deemed persistently absent in 2022-2023 was 16.3%; this was more than triple the pre-pandemic figure of 4.6% in 2018-20191In June 2023, the Minister for Education published new draft guidance on improving learner engagement and attendance as part of the ‘Belonging, engaging and participating’ consultation. This resulted in the Welsh Government revising its definition of ‘persistence absence’ to instances where pupils miss over 10% of sessions. This change to the threshold has since been applied and is used within our annual report. As a result, the proportion of learners falling into the persistently absent category is higher than it would have been using the previously defined threshold of 20%.. Among pupils eligible for free school meals, the issue of persistent absence was acute with more than one in three, 35.6%, deemed persistently absent in 2022-2023; this compared with the pre-pandemic figure of one in eight,12.7%, in 2018-2019.

Most leaders of schools inspected in 2022-2023 told inspectors that pupil attendance had improved compared to the same time in the previous year, but that the number of pupils persistently absent continued to concern them. Thirteen of the 25 secondary school inspections conducted resulted in a recommendation related to improving pupil attendance. In contrast, only four of the 156 primary school inspections resulted in a recommendation related to attendance. Special schools generally had very secure arrangements to support regular attendance. However, attendance was identified as requiring improvement in one of the seven maintained special schools inspected.

Many of the pupils at the PRUs inspected had poor attendance records at their previous schools. Improving the attendance of PRU pupils remained a challenge that had been exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite the efforts of leaders, overall attendance remained below pre-pandemic levels. For three of the four PRUs inspected during 2022-2023, inspectors left recommendations related to pupil attendance. This included strengthening procedures for monitoring attendance as well as improving pupil attendance rates.

In the best cases, inspectors found that schools had established effective systems for promoting good attendance and responding to concerning patterns of absences. At these schools, leaders evaluated their strategies to promote good attendance carefully and adapted their approaches if they were not successful enough. The roles and responsibilities of staff members at these schools were clear and this, together with reliable arrangements for communication with parents and pupils, helped the schools to respond very quickly and effectively to absences. They contacted pupils and their parents promptly to follow up instances when pupils were not present when expected. Among schools who had successfully increased pupil attendance rates, improved parental engagement was identified as one of the key contributing factors.

Arrangements for notifying parents of their child’s absence, as well as for parents to notify the school or PRU of the reasons behind any absences, were up to date in the majority of schools and all PRUs inspected. Digital systems, often mobile app, email or text message based, when used well, provided parents with responsive and convenient ways of monitoring their child’s attendance and communicating with the school. These arrangements, reinforced by telephone calls and home visits where required, helped to establish a culture of responsible communication between parents and schools, as well as strong attendance among pupils.

Where pupils’ attendance was at risk of becoming a concern, the most effective schools and PRUs worked with families to identify the reasons behind this and to address the barriers to attendance on an individual pupil level. Alongside parental engagement, sensitive, supportive strategies to help pupils identified as being absent due to emotional reasons were effective in supporting learners to re-engage with school following the disruption of the pandemic. Often these arrangements were led by specialist staff members, such as a family engagement or liaison officers, who worked in partnership with pastoral leads, local authority officers and specialist external agencies where appropriate.

Improving attendance at St Alban’s R.C. High School

St Alban’s R.C. High School has a clear and robust focus on improving attendance. Leaders emphasise the importance of developing positive and supportive relationships with families as key to improving attendance. The school regularly communicates the significance of good attendance to parents, beginning with the year 6 transition parents’ evening. When pupils join the school in Year 7, form tutors send home a welcome email to further establish the school’s relationship with parents. The school’s Welfare and Engagement Officer makes early contact with parents to offer support if a pupil’s attendance is starting to cause concern followed by home visits from the well-being team. The school provides information on individual pupils’ attendance and makes relevant links to their progress, highlighting the impact poorer attendance has on pupils. Parents appreciate this support and work closely with the Welfare and Engagement Officer.

The school has developed clear lines of communication to ensure that form tutors, heads of year, senior leaders, the welfare engagement team and governors have a thorough understanding of attendance data and the interventions needed. There is a robust gradual response system which includes clear roles and responsibilities. Heads of year have weekly meetings to evaluate attendance progress against previous data (previous year, term, and week) and line manager meetings are used to monitor progress and evaluate, and amend where necessary, the impact strategies are having.

As a result of these strategies, pupils’ enjoyment of school is reflected well in their level of attendance. Nearly all pupils are proud to belong to an inclusive school and promote its core values of mutual respect, courtesy and kindness.

Promoting the well-being and mental health of pupils at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd, Wrexham

Following the disruption of the pandemic, leaders at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd are paying close attention to promoting the well-being and mental health of all pupils. A notable element of the school’s work is the strong and positive support given to the most vulnerable pupils via the ‘Hwb Bugeiliol’. The staff at the Hwb collaborate effectively with relevant external agencies such as the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and social services, in order to offer personal support to pupils and their families.

The school succeeds in supporting pupils who have intense emotional and behavioural needs or who are persistently absent, ensuring that they remain engaged with their education until the end of Year 11.

In schools and PRUs where average attendance rates were low, persistent absence among a small but significant number of pupils was identified as a key factor. Many secondary school leaders reported that they were concerned by the number of pupils who were persistently absent. However, inspectors found that, in too many schools where attendance was weaker, leaders either did not recognise the impact of the issue, or processes to address such persistent absences were ineffective. For example, the first stage of the attendance policy was often enacted, but the follow-up actions specified by later stages did not always take place despite being appropriate.

At the least effective schools, senior leaders often did not recognise, analyse and investigate patterns of pupil absences well enough. Where issues were identified, less effective schools were often too reliant on traditional, often slow and unresponsive, arrangements to involve parents and to work with families to improve attendance. In such cases, leaders had not adapted their arrangements to take account of the changing nature of the barriers to attendance including the increasing cost of living and the legacy effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a few cases, policies and practices relied on attendance thresholds, used to trigger further intervention for pupils and their families, that were too low. For example, at some schools, wider support from a local authority welfare officer was triggered for a pupil if their attendance fell below 60%. In other schools with higher overall rates of attendance, such support was available if a pupil’s attendance fell below 80% or 85%.

Inspectors were concerned about the number of reduced timetables that were being put in place for pupils. Where used well, reduced timetables in conjunction with pastoral support plans, were an effective tool to support pupils, for example during a phased return to school after a period of absence. However, in a few cases, inspectors identified pupils that were following reduced timetables for too long and without appropriate reviews, which meant that they were missing out on valuable time at their school or PRU. Within PRUs, pupils who went prolonged periods without access to full-time education generally made limited progress in their learning. In a few cases, local authorities were not monitoring the use of reduced timetables closely enough or challenging any inappropriate use of them.

In some schools, leaders were collaborating successfully with pupil representatives to plan and implement specific initiatives to promote attendance and engagement. A few had successfully improved pupil attendance by working to make the school day more enjoyable for pupils. Often these schools incentivised pupils to improve their attendance by introducing competitions that involved offering small rewards for good attendance. This helped to improve pupils’ sense of ownership of their attendance records. Other practical approaches included a ‘walking bus’ whereby pupils walked to school along a predetermined route under supervision, stopping to collect their peers on the way. This helped to promote attendance and physical activity and also reduced the carbon footprint of commuting to school.

Promoting pupils’ ambition and commitment at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Llangynwyd, Bridgend

The approaches adopted by Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Llangynwyd contribute significantly to pupils’ enjoyment of coming to school. The way most pupils espouse the characteristics of ‘Dysgwyr Llan’, which are ‘successful, leading and powerful’, is a strength. In lessons, pupils cultivate the mentality of being successful individuals; nearly all pupils are punctual to lessons and attendance, including among those who qualify for free school meals, is above the national rate.

Friday afternoon clubs give Year 7 to Year 9 pupils opportunities to build relationships with each other and to enjoy socialising. This has contributed to improvements in attitudes to learning as well as overall attendance. The school uses assemblies to update pupils about class attendance levels over the preceding six weeks. This stimulates a positive, competitive response among the pupils and motivates them to improve further.

In response to the additional challenges posed by the pandemic, staff members have developed a successful system to track and improve attendance. Effective collaboration with the local authority’s education and welfare officer, in combination with the work of the recently appointed family liaison officer, ensures a quick and effective response to absences.


Burtonshaw, S., Dorrell, E. (2023) Listening to, and learning from, parents in the attendance crisis. England: Public First. [Online]. Available from: Accessed 13 November 2023]

Estyn (2023) Equity of curriculum experiences for pupils who are educated other than at schools (EOTAS). Cardiff: Estyn. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 November 2023]

John, A., Friedmann, Y., Del Pozo Banos, M., Frizzati, A., Ford, T., Thapar, A. (2021) Association of school absence and exclusion with recorded neurodevelopmental disorders, mental disorders or self-harm: a nationwide e-cohort study of children and young people in Wales. Wales: Administrative Data Research Wales. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 November 2023]

Welsh Government (2023a) Attendance of pupils in maintained schools: 5 September 2022 to 24 July 2023. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 November 2023]

Welsh Government (2023b) Exclusions from Maintained Schools: September 2021 to August 2022. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 November 2023]

Welsh Government (2023c) Pupils educated other than at school: September 2022 to August 2023. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 November 2023]

Welsh Government (2023d) Absenteeism from secondary schools: September 2022 to August 2023. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 November 2023]