Human Development

School absences as an early warning system

  • Blog Post Date 27 June, 2023
  • Notes from the Field
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When children are frequently absent from school, it could be a sign that they are going through adverse personal circumstances. In this note, Anurag Kundu discusses the experience of launching a large-scale intervention to track students' attendance and provide support to vulnerable students that would allow them to return to school. He highlights the adverse impact of poor school attendance on learning and health outcomes, and the need to track attendance to understand students’ circumstances and design appropriate interventions. 

Last year, 16-year-old Priya from Jaitpur and 16-year old Divya1 from Tughalakabad in Delhi did not attend school for 12 consecutive days. They were not the only ones – 3,629 other children from Delhi government schools were also absent for 12 days consecutively in the same period. We have seen that children are frequently or regularly absent because of the adversities they may be experiencing, including severe sickness, injuries, substance abuse, death of a loved one, early marriage, child labour and bullying, which all cause students to miss or drop out of school. 

We looked at children who had missed school for seven consecutive days, or whose attendance had dipped below 33% in the preceding month – nearly half of them were absent because of serious sickness or injury; 1,945 children had lost a family member; 51 girl students were married off; 50 children dropped out because of corporal punishment; 6,943 children bunked schools; and 46 children were just missing altogether, with the police now trying to find them. Peer pressure, substance abuse, or shame or fear of attending school may also have been a contributing factor for low attendance. 

This led the Delhi Commission For Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) to launch a large-scale intervention to track children’s attendance, intervene to provide them with the necessary support, and bring them back to schools. We called it ‘Early Warning System’. Under this intervention, we monitored the attendance of nearly 1.9 million children from Delhi government schools every day in real-time, and flagged children who were absent for seven or more days consecutively or whose attendance dropped below 33% as ‘at-risk’ students. We designed an outreach mechanism for reaching out to these students through our helpline, or by conducting home visits with the help of school management committees, cluster coordinators, and civil society organisations. 

In the last 12 months, more than 45,000 home visits have been undertaken to prevent children from dropping out. This is how we found that Priya had developed a breast cyst and Divya was set to be married off, and that their parents did not see any point in continuing their education. Their absence was an early warning to the system of the crises both girls were experiencing. 

Understanding and remedying school absences 

By nudging parents to take their children’s education seriously, hundreds of thousands of follow-ups, and 45,000 home visits, we now understand the circumstances of these children better, allowing us to be more empathetic in our governance to remedy their situation. 

Through these interventions, we have succeeded in supporting, nudging and bringing almost 40,000 children back to school. Our interventions have ranged from SMS or IVR calls to helpline-based personalised calls and home visits for severe cases of corporal punishment, child marriage, parental death, or other such reasons. The more serious cases of absences – as established through helpline calls and home visits – are often followed by a specific type of intervention depending upon the extent of vulnerability of the student. Our analysis shows that a simple intervention like a helpline call improves the likelihood of students returning to school by almost 10%. Similarly, a daily SMS to their parents about their absence helped reduce bunking by students (mainly adolescent boys) by almost 45% and thus improved their attendance rate in the schools. 

The interventions have also provided high-intensity support to nearly 3,100 children in the process – this includes providing medical support, providing counselling and greater support from teachers for children who lost relatives, averting a few child marriages, and preventing drop-outs on account of non-disbursal of financial assistance, uniforms or books by enrolling children’s families for financial assistance under different government schemes. The Commission also made direct interventions in the case of missing children, parental incarceration, or corporal punishment or bullying. Governance is coming together for these children. 

Lessons from the early warning system 

Having clearly laid out processes for identifying, recognising and supporting children in adverse circumstances allows us to ensure every child is in the school and learning. There are lessons we have learned that are of relevance for the rest of the country as well, since poor attendance is a country-wide problem. 

For instance, last year, 21% of schools in India reported attendance of half or less of the total number of students. At one point, almost one-third of senior secondary students in Uttar Pradesh reported absence on any given day (Singh 2015). High school attendance is usually higher than elementary school, given that disadvantaged students drop out as they get older. 

Not tracking attendance and building default interventions to support children in adverse circumstances is a sign of governance that is passive and slow at best, and apathetic at worst. Tracking attendance is needed to achieve the universal foundational literacy and numeracy, the stated goal of the New Education Policy. One of the significant explanations of poor learning outcomes that the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) points to is that students are simply not in schools to learn. It is no surprise, therefore, that only 53% of grade 5 students can read grade 2 texts. Different studies bear out the students’ absenteeism as a leading cause of poor learning outcomes (see, for example, Garcia and Weiss (2018) and Akkus and Cinkur (2022). 

Poor attendance is catastrophic not just for learning outcomes, but for health and nutritional reasons too, given that poor attendance compromises and limits the effectiveness of interventions such as the provision of midday meals for nutrition, iron and folic acid tablets to prevent anaemia, and distribution of sanitary pads for adolescent girls, amongst others. This is too important to be side-lined in a country like ours where more than half the adolescent girls are anaemic


Divya and Priya’s attendance was the earliest warning to our systems to identify, recognise and address their adversity. Despite this, attendance data is rarely collected in our country. 

The Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE), the country’s largest data collection framework, fails to collect attendance data altogether and hence blinds us to the reality of the classroom at the system level. It is time we make course corrections, especially at a time when we are in a position to, as state teachers increasingly use mobile applications, and attendance data is easy to collect. 

To hear Divya’s and Priya’s stories, tracking attendance should be the first order of business. Priya had her surgery in July last year, she is now healthy and attending school regularly. Divya recorded 100% attendance in December last year, and appeared for her board examinations last month. She is looking forward to becoming a business-woman – we have full faith that she will. 

Views expressed by the author are personal.


  1. Names changed 

Further Reading

  • Akkus, Murat and Sakir Cinkir (2022), “The Problem of Student Absenteeism, Its Impact on Educational Environments, and The Evaluation of Current Policies”, International Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 9(Special Issue): 978-997. Available here
  • Singh, Tirmal (2015), “Impact & Reasons of Absentees in Secondary Schools of Uttar Pradesh”, International Journal of Research in Humanities & Social Sciences, 3(6): 26-30. Available here.
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