Attending to Attendance - Let's Tip the Balance Back to School

Attending to Attendance - Let's Tip the Balance Back to School

As the government expands its Attendance Hub programme with more schools and trusts being nominated, I thought it would be good to distil some national thinking and provide you with a quick checklist to ensure we are all doing as much as we can. The Attendance Action Alliance have stated unequivocally that, “Children are better off in education and all barriers to this should be removed,” and I would not disagree.

Colleagues tell me that some aspects of the national and local agenda are leaning towards secondary provision. While it is vitally important that we motivate and engage these older learners to reconnect with their education before it is too late, I do worry about their younger counterparts in our primary schools.

Why are children not attending school?

Fragile mental health, increased attachment to family and home, gaps in learning and the complex behaviour of peers are all taking a toll on our children, who are navigating an already complex academic journey in a post-COVID world.

Transition from Early Years to Key Stage One – being school ready – and foundations for high school, at the end of year six, are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Whatever the root causes behind the outward-facing behaviour of a school refuser – a lack of engagement in school can have devastating consequences on the whole family.

It would be impertinent to tell you about the importance of attendance for children, but it is worth reflecting on important factors in this ever-increasingly complex part of school leadership and management:

  • Personal and social development
  • Academic achievement and aspiration
  • Routine and consistency
  • Participation

The Department for Education has updated its Working Together to Improve Attendance Guidance (September 2022) alongside investment in a wider range of measures, including a checklist summarising everyone’s responsibilities for attendance, the broader development of Attendance Hubs and the programme of Attendance Mentors delivered by Barnardo’s. The aim is that these measures will address this persistent issue. The core document cites five key ways in which all schools can work to address the issue of attendance in school, from school culture and systems to legal powers and enforcement.

Expect

Aspire to high attendance standards from all pupils and parents and build a culture where all can and want to be in school and ready to learn by prioritising attendance improvement.

Listen and Understand

When a pattern is spotted, discuss it with pupils and parents to listen to understand barriers to attendance and agree on how all partners can work together to resolve them.

Facilitate Support

Remove barriers in school and help pupils and parents access the support they need to overcome them outside of school. This might include early help or a whole family plan where absence is a symptom of wider issues.

Formalise Support

Where absence persists and voluntary support is not working or not being engaged with, partners should work together to explain the consequences clearly and ensure support is also in place to enable families to respond. Depending on the circumstances, this may include formalising support through a parenting contract or education supervision order.

Enforce

Where all other avenues have been exhausted, and support is not working or not being engaged with, enforce attendance through statutory intervention or prosecution to protect the pupil’s right to an education.

They are also correct in citing three key strategies – prevention, early intervention, and targeted support- that, when administered effectively, will shift the growing tide of children out of education more often than in.

However, given the growing squeeze on budgets and time, it’s worth reviewing current practice to ensure we are doing all we can without impacting staff time and school resources.

A Quick Checklist

Without compromise, everything you have agreed upon within your attendance policy should be lived out daily by all staff. Here are my top 5:

Let’s All Give the Same Message

Consistent messages from ALL staff: office, teachers, pastoral team (attendance leads), teaching assistants, lunchtime staff – providing scripted language for everyone ensures the message never changes.

Strong Communication Systems

  • Responding to absence: text parents, then phone parents and finally undertake home visits (where appropriate)
  • Put it in writing: a consistent set of letters sent to parents to remind them of their responsibility to get their children into school and to thank them when it improves.
  • Expect parents to phone the school every day of an absence. I would consider whether the growing trend of parents being able to text school to report an absence can cause an increase in non-attendance, as this non-confrontational tool makes it easier to avoid school staff and sometimes the accountability that goes with it.
  • Late Gates: provide a warm face on the gate, expect a reason for being late and form a relationship by offering solutions.

Relationships with Parents and Pupils

There are many ways to break down barriers to attendance, but forming strong relationships should always be the first, be it at the gate, in the classroom, or undertaking a more personal approach through mentoring and pastoral support.

Making school a place the wider family wants to attend is a huge undertaking logistically and financially, but welcoming parents and extended family into school consistently and regularly for different events can have a massive impact on overarching engagement.

Rewarding parents and children for getting into school. It’s free to say thank you and we know that children love certificates and rewards. My only caveat here is that some children, sometimes, cannot get into school, e.g., hospital appointments linked to long-term medical conditions – is 100% for them every day, except on appointment days, a better solution to value all?

Analysing Data

Looking at attendance data and tracking trends and patterns takes time and skill. You need to find the right information to change the outcomes of individuals in your school.

Consider reviewing your management information system to ensure it provides the information you need - you are the customer. Many providers offer bespoke services to create tracking that works for you.

If this level of rigour is new, although it’s counterintuitive, start with looking at all of it at the start of each term; then look for trends so that you can follow lines of enquiry and begin to identify small pinch points that need improvement.

Ask lots of questions about the data to interrogate the facts and figures:

  • Days of the week patterns – Monday and Friday patterns?
  • Sibling attendance patterns – Is everyone off? Is the high school sibling off?
  • Timetable patterns – What lessons happen on that day?
  • Remove festival absence from overarching figures to see the real issues.
  • Track and remove significant illness figures, e.g. Chickenpox, when they occur

The combination of data analysis and strong relationships with parents and families means that when you talk to them, you have enough information to engage in a meaningful conversation about the problem and find a solution.

Honest Reflection

Are your classrooms more enticing than staying at home? Can we assume that how we do things is enough anymore to counterbalance the option to stay at home? Have some discussions as a staff about what the magic ingredient is to entice your children away from their homes.

Coming Soon – Attendance Focus Mini

Emma Ford is in the process of producing her very own Focus Mini based on school attendance. To register your interest, please contact us on 01457 821 818 or email customerservice@focus-education.co.uk.

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