11. Attendance at primary school

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Why are primary school attendance rates important?

Attendance at school, in particular primary school, exposes children to opportunities to develop the basic building blocks for learning and educational attainment, as well as social skills such as friendship building, teamwork, communication skills and healthy self-esteem. Attendance patterns have been found to be established early in school life, and disparities in attendance tend to be carried into, and become greater in secondary school. (Hancock et al. 2013). Children who are regularly absent from school are at risk of missing out on these critical stages of educational development and may experience long-term difficulties with their learning, resulting in fewer educational and employment opportunities. Absenteeism can also exacerbate issues of low self-esteem, social isolation and dissatisfaction (Vic DHS 2008). Attendance rates generally fall in secondary school and thus it is important that initiatives that are aimed at improving attendance start early (Hancock et al. 2013). Prolonged non-attendance in adolescents is also associated with increased substance use, high-risk sexual behaviour and teenage pregnancy, violence, suicide attempts and unintentional injury. Absenteeism is also associated with mental health issues over the longer-term (Hawkrigg and Payne 2014).

Indigenous students have higher rates of absenteeism and suspension, and lower rates of school completion than non-Indigenous students, which limit their future life choices and ability to achieve their full potential (Helme & Lamb 2011). Increasing attendance at primary school for disadvantaged populations, particularly for Indigenous children, is expected to help reduce the considerable gap that currently exists in academic achievement between different socio-economic population groups within Australia.

A recent study by the Productivity Commission (2016) found that lower average school attendance rates were associated with poorer Indigenous literacy and numeracy results in primary school (Productivity Commission 2016). School attendance is affected by a range of underlying issues such as housing, health care, mental health issues, family violence and intergenerational unemployment (Mission Australia 2016).

Research shows that students from low socioeconomic status background have significantly lower attendance rates, especially in secondary school, than other students (Hancock et al. 2013). ACWP survey data shows that mobility of young people, in terms of moving home or school several times in a short period, is associated with lower attendance rates at school (Redmond et al. 2016). 

Do primary school attendance rates vary across population groups?

In 2016, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) reported that the national attendance rate of children in Year 5 was around 94%, with girls having similar attendance rates to boys (around 94% and 93%, respectively). Major cities had the highest attendance rate (around 94%), with attendance decreasing with remoteness (to around 77% in Very remote areas).

At the same time, the attendance rates for Indigenous children (around 86%) were lower than for non-Indigenous children (94%); with the largest difference observed in the Northern Territory (around 73% for Indigenous, compared to around 93% for non-Indigenous children) and the smallest difference observed in Tasmania (around 92% for Indigenous, compared to around 94% for non-Indigenous children).

Attendance rates did not vary significantly between school sectors (Catholic, Independent, and Non-government schools —reported 94%, 95% and 94% Year 5 attendance rates, respectively), but were slightly lower for Government schools (93%) (see Notes section for definitions of ‘school sector’).

The proportion of students who attend school 90% or more of possible days nationally for 2016 was 80.8%, with higher proportions observed in New South Wales and Victoria (84.2% and 82.8%, respectively), compared with Northern Territory (56.2%) (see Notes section for definition).

Has there been a change over time?

Attendance rates for Year 5 students have changed little within the population groups presented, by state and territory between 2014, 2015 and 2016.


ACARA developed the National Standards for Student Attendance Data Reporting (national standards) to standardise reporting across Australia for comparability purposes. Government and non-government providers of attendance data are obliged to draw on them when providing data for national reporting purposes (ACARA 2015).

In the AIHW published report ‘Headline indicators for children’s health, development and wellbeing 2011’, substantial differences were highlighted in the different ways that data were collected in jurisdictions and across sectors resulting in poor comparability of attendance figures (AIHW 2011). In the intervening period, the non-government sectors (Catholic and independent schools) complied with the standards from 2013 onwards; government schools in all jurisdictions except New South Wales, from 2014 (ACARA 2015). Consequently, only data for 2014, 2015 and 2016 are reported.

New South Wales government schools are working towards being fully compliant with the National Standards.

Beginning in 2016, NAPLAN results are reported using the ABS Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS) to classify each school’s geographical location (geolocation). As a result, the geolocation results obtained from the National Standards for Student Attendance Data Reporting 2016 are not directly comparable to those of previous cycles.

The National Report on Schooling in Australia uses the term ‘school sector’ to distinguish between government and non-government schools. Government schools are established and administered by State and Territory governments through their education departments or authorities. Non-government schools, usually with some religious affiliation, are established and operated under conditions determined by State and Territory Governments through their registration authorities. School sector is also used to distinguish between non-government schools as Catholic or independent. Catholic schools are affiliated with the Catholic Church and make up the largest group of non-government schools. Independent schools may be associated with other religions, other denominations, particular educational philosophies or operate as single entities (see ACARA glossary for more details).


  • ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) 2015. National Standards for Student Attendance Data Reporting 2015. Sydney: ACARA.
  • AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2011. Headline Indicators for children’s health, development and wellbeing 2011. Cat. no. PHE 144. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Hancock K, Shepherd C, Lawrence D, & Zubrick S (2013). Student attendance and educational outcomes: Every day counts. Report for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Canberra.
  • Hawkrigg S & Payne DN 2014. Prolonged school non-attendance in adolescence: a practical approach. Archives of Disease in Childhood 99:954-57.
  • Helme S & Lamb S 2011. Closing the school completion gap for Indigenous students. Produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and  Welfare & Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Mission Australia. (2016). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth Report 2016.
  • Productivity Commission. (2016). Indigenous Primary School Achievement. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
  • Redmond G, Skattebol J. et al (2016). Are the kids alright? Young Australians in the middle years: final summary report of the Australian Child Wellbing Project. Flinders University, UNSW Australia, Australian Council for Educational Research,
  • Vic DHS 2008. Headline Indicators for children’s health, development and wellbeing. Melbourne: Prepared by the Victorian Government Department of Human Servcices on behalf of the Australian Health Ministers’ Conference and the Community and Disability Services Ministers’ Conference.