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Can Higher School Attendance Shape the Future of Foundational Learning?

By Ankit Sharma and Kohima Goyal

Feb 8, 2024

This blog explores the reasons for student absenteeism at the foundational level (grades 1-3) in India. It is a concise call to action for policymakers and all stakeholders to collectively address the root causes and forge a path toward an education system that embodies the spirit of 'learning for all.'

As we delve into the realm of primary education, recognising its pivotal role in shaping a child’s cognitive development, we applaud India’s commendable achievement of attaining a 100% Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) at the primary level. However, the shadows of irregular attendance in foundational grades, as pointed out by Ansari and Purtell, 2022, cast significant challenges on this accomplishment.

In a study conducted across seven states and 13 districts in India, covering a total of 200 classrooms, it was observed that on average only 50% of students in the age group 3-6 years were present during classroom sessions (CSF, 2023). This finding underscores the significance of consistent attendance during foundational grades, as also indicated by research which has shown that it enhances students’ behavior, attention, effort, and class participation in later grades (Berlinski, Galiani, and Gertler, 2009).

As we reflect on the intricate interplay between enrollment, consistent attendance and the overarching goal of ‘learning for all,’ a resounding truth emerges: education is not a static destination but a dynamic journey that necessitates active participation. The Ministry of Education’s vision for 2023 underscores this, and it aligns with the fundamental premise that meaningful learning thrives on regular attendance. Underlining the significance of consistent classroom attendance, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and Sustainable Development Goal 4 assert that the efforts in NEP 2020 and the Right to Education Act 2009 lose meaning without children actively participating in school (Banerji & Mathur, 2021).

In a school year with 220 working days per National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2023 guidelines, about 31.5% of students consistently show absenteeism (Edcil, n.d.). This leads to an economic loss of approximately INR 3.4 lakh crores for each cohort, roughly 1.26% of GDP, indicating that it is not just a number, but a collective opportunity cost borne when a substantial portion of our children are not actively participating in foundational education. 

This blog explores the reasons for student absenteeism at the foundational level (grades 1-3) in India. It is a concise call to action for policymakers and all stakeholders to collectively address the root causes and forge a path toward an education system that embodies the spirit of ‘learning for all.’

Dimensions of School Attendance

Definition of school absenteeism varies across cultures and legal systems. Literature often categorises attendees as regular, irregular, chronic absentees and dropouts (Schoeneberger, 2011; Nichols, 2003; Rana et al., 2015).

Absenteeism involves students missing 5-9% of school days often due to reasons like illness or low interest. Chronic absenteeism varies globally from 18 or more days in the United States to 15 or more days in a month in India, or 20 or more days in other studies from different regions. Dropout, a more severe situation, is defined as missing 20% or more of school, indicating a significant disruption in educational continuity.

The SRI-IMRB (Social & Rural Research Institute, Indian Market Research Bureau) Report categorizes a child as ‘out of school’ if not enrolled or absent for over two consecutive months. The NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) considers never enrolled and dropout children as out of school, without a specific reference period. ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), NFHS (National Family Health Survey), and IHDS (India Human Development Survey) use enrollment as a proxy for attendance. It is, thus, important to note that different surveys employ diverse methodologies and criteria for defining attendance, leading to varied perspectives on this crucial aspect of educational assessment.

Reasons for Student’s Low Attendance

Reflecting on a child’s journey through education, it becomes evident that attendance and continuation in school is governed by several factors involving the home/family and school. The interest of both the child and the parents in education has to be supported by the socio-economic conditions of their family and the school has to encourage and nurture their interest in education. Moreover, the school has to facilitate a learning process and an environment that ensures the child’s enjoyment while learning. We strongly believe that if one or all of these factors are not favorable for attendance and continuation, the child may discontinue attending school and remain a dropout.

Factors contributing towards low student attendance:

Reasons Hypotheses Evidence 
Child Characteristics
Gender Girls have higher absenteeism Singh and Mukherjee’s (2017) study found that more boys (51.2%) attend preschools than girls (38.7%).
Illness of child and malnutrition Illness and malnutrition lead to absenteeism Ghosh et al. (2017) stated that the chief reasons for irregularity of students were illness (18.98%), rainy days (16.45%), and social or family occasions (11.28%). Another research has also found that protein-energy malnutrition and iron-deficiency anemia  have significant negative effects on tests of cognitive function in both pre-school and school age children, and eventually affect attendance and achievement (Satyarthi, 2020). 
Learning difficulty/ Low IQ Children having difficulty understanding/ interacting with teachers, eventually remain absent As per a study conducted across 20 states in India (Edcil, n.d.) , in 9 states 20% parents felt that children remained absent from school due to experiencing difficulty in learning.
School Characteristics
School infrastructure (drinking water, washroom, toys, etc.) Adequate seating facility, presence of an attached playground, existence of a separate toilet for girl students – have a positive impact on student attendance rates. A report by  Center for studies in social sciences, 2010 argues that adequate student sitting arrangements , separate toilets for females etc. led to higher attendance rates (%) and better literacy and numeracy scores. 
Teacher does not communicate in the language of the child Being unable to connect due to language barriers leads to absenteeism 22.5% community members in a survey conducted by MHRD stated difficulty in understanding teaching language as a reason for low attendance 
Access to schools /Transportation/ someone in family to pick up and drop Lack of transportation facilities leads to absenteeism 15.9% teachers state lack of transport facility as a reason for low attendance in schools
Household Characteristics
Parent’s lack of interest/ home environment Lack of interest of family members/ health emergency situations/ other factors lead to absenteeism Amalu and Abang (2016) stated that financial constraints, lack of interest, illnesses, pampering from family members, location of school were the major causes of absenteeism among pupils
Temporary Migration Migration of parents in search of job affects the regular schooling of students as they also move with their parents especially during harvest season Sahin and Arseven (2016) reported that seasonal workers move from one place to another in search of a job which ultimately creates disinterest for schooling among children. The study found that the majority of students do not attend school during harvesting season, rainy season and after long vacations
Poverty Children from poor households have higher absenteeism Considering households’ monthly per capita consumption/expenditure is used as a proxy for their economic status, estimates reveal that economic status of a household has a significant impact on the decision to send a child for accessing pre-primary education. The chances of attending early years of education increase with the increase in their paying capacity. Estimates show that a unit increase in household consumption expenditure increases the probability of attending pre-primary education by 11.8 percentage points.
Location (rural/urban) Absenteeism is higher in rural areas. Significant rural–urban disparity exists in household spending on pre-primary education in India. Rural households spend around 4% of their annual consumption expenditure per child on accessing pre-primary education, while this is 10% for urban households—2.5 times higher.
Household head’s education Educational level of the head of the family is positively related to attendance of the child Household head’s education status is positively related to attendance in pre-primary education in India. With a unit increase in the level of education of the head, the probability of their child attending nursery and kindergarten classes increases by around 1%.
Peer influence Having siblings/ friends who did not attend pre primary school/ foundational years of schooling and/ or poor relation with peers at the center leads to absenteeism 20% of respondents expressed that students do not come to school due to poor relation with peers and overage

Low attendance, thus, is a pan-Indian problem, which merits serious attention from educationists, policymakers and researchers.

Initiatives and Policy Dynamics: Navigating Student Attendance Challenges

In addressing the challenge of low student attendance, various initiatives have been operationalised at different levels, ranging from programmes to policies in India.

The mid-day meal scheme, initiated in 1995, played a crucial role in boosting enrollment and attendance by addressing malnutrition. However, considering today’s advancements, like states providing free ration kits, we feel it’s crucial to reevaluate the scheme’s ongoing impact on school attendance.

On the policy front, the Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009 and the NEP 2020, do not explicitly specify the minimum attendance requirements for FLN grades. Some states, like Delhi and Bihar,  recommend a minimum of 75% attendance as a criteria for primary students to appear in exams. Despite these efforts, strategies to address low attendance lack consistency and clarity across regions, contributing to a significant enrollment-attendance gap, that has a roll-over impact on learning outcomes as well. 

In addressing the challenge of low student attendance, various initiatives have been operationalised at different levels, ranging from programmes to policies in India.

Conclusion and Way forward

The persistent challenge of irregular attendance in foundational grades demands a reinvigorated strategy. The reasons for student absenteeism are multi-faceted, involving child, school and household dynamics, from gender disparities to infrastructural limitations.

To effectively address this complex issue, a nuanced and prioritised approach is crucial. Initiating region-specific pilot studies can unravel key focus areas for intervention, laying the groundwork for inclusive and equitable education. Furthermore, drawing inspiration from successful global and Indian initiatives, such as the impactful mid-day meal scheme, requires a contemporary reassessment to align with evolving challenges.

As we navigate this landscape, policymakers, educationists and researchers must grapple with the intricacies of gender-based absenteeism, health-related challenges and the impact of learning difficulties on attendance. Identifying scalable solutions necessitates not only understanding the interconnected issues but also adapting strategies to the unique contexts of rural and urban settings.

Looking ahead, a concerted effort to bridge the enrollment-attendance gap is essential. Clear and consistent policies should be complemented by targeted interventions that address the specific challenges faced by students, schools and households. Only through a comprehensive and adaptable approach can India fortify the very foundation of education, ensuring a brighter future for all.


Foundational Learning
School Education

Authored by

Ankit Sharma

Senior Project Lead, Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives, Central Square Foundation

Kohima Goyal

Project Manager, Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives, Central Square Foundation

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