From policy to practice, planning a strategy for school attendance is an
essential part of the attendance manager’s job. In this article, Matt Bromley
outlines five stages in the process to improve attendance.
- Consistency in applying policy is essential.
- Parents should be encouraged not to condone absence.
- Once data is analysed, it must be acted upon.
There are myriad reasons why some pupils cannot or will not attend school, or only do so sporadically. Many of these reasons are outside of a school’s direct control.
Although articulating a theoretical target of 100% attendance is understandable, in practice it is rarely possible to achieve. Schools should be realistic and pragmatic about what they can do to ensure pupils attend.
However, there are some things school leaders can do to maximise the chances of pupils attending and doing so on time. They can also ensure that, when pupils are absent, their reasons are sought and analysed quickly. Lessons must be learnt and all stakeholders must work together for the good of young people’s education.
Here is a five-point plan for attendance success.
Step 1: Policy
Good attendance management all starts with policy. A school must have a clear policy that sets out its expectations of attendance and punctuality and explains the procedures that it will follow whenever a pupil does not attend or is late for school or lessons.
However, a policy is of no use if it remains no more than a document locked in a dusty drawer. It must be widely known and understood. The best way to achieve this is to consult on its contents with as wide an audience as possible. Invite contributions from staff, parents, external agencies, the local community, employers and so on.
Once the policy has been consulted upon and agreed, it needs to be communicated as widely and as often as possible. You could, for example, include relevant segments of the policy in letters home and make it easily accessible via the school website. You could distribute it to new parents through transition materials, enrolment packs and at information evenings.
Having a policy that is known and understood is only half the battle won. It must then be put into practice and this means ensuring it is known by staff and followed consistently by all staff and for all pupils.
One tangible example where a policy is key is punctuality. You need to answer a few questions:
- What do you mean by ‘being late’? Is it 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 or 15 minutes after the bell?
- Are pupils classed as being on time if they attend before the register is closed?
- Is the school’s definition of late the same for the statutory morning and afternoon register as for each lesson of the day?
Whatever definition the school decides and includes in its policy, it must be adhered to by all staff all the time. Inconsistency in the application of attendance and punctuality procedures will sound the death knell.
Consistency is also needed in the use of attendance codes. Staff need to know what code to use for different types of absence and this should be clearly stipulated in the policy.
“ Inconsistency in the application of attendance and punctuality procedures will sound the death knell ”
Step 2: Personalise
Having said that consistency is key, this is not to suggest that every pupil is the same and should be treated the same. Of course different pupils have different needs and face different challenges in attending school and being on time.
Whilst continuing to work within the confines of the policy, it is important to identify the barriers that individual pupils face. For each pupil who misses school or who is late to school, you should try to establish what has prevented this child from attending. Is it something at home or in school? Only by truly analysing the causes can you begin to find workable solutions. The toolkit on page 18 lists some suggested causes that you may wish to consider.
Once the causes of non-attendance are known, the next step is to plan personalised strategies to help support the pupil back into school. Here it is crucial that attempts are made to involve, and not just inform, parents or carers and external agencies in the process.
Without parental support and understanding, it is unlikely that any strategies will be effective in the long term. A pupil needs to see that the school and home are united in a common cause, working together and talking to each other.
the strategies have been agreed, it is important to set success criteria.
Everyone needs to know what a good outcome will look like, how this is going to be achieved and within what timescales. It may be that step-goals are established to encourage a gradual improvement over time, accepting that perfect attendance is an unlikely immediate outcome.
Step 3: Practice
Once the policy has been agreed and communicated, and the causes and solutions to non-attendance have been targeted and personalised, the school must approach the management of attendance and punctuality with high expectations.
One way to exhibit high expectations is to promote awareness among pupils and their parents that an absence results in quantifiable lost learning time. Schools should try to talk about absence in terms that pupils and parents will easily understand. For example, that missing a day a week means missing out on two weeks of lessons each term.
Another way to promote high expectations is to inform parents about current research that links good attendance with academic achievement as well as with longer-term health and well-being. You might even mention improved job prospects and earnings potential.
High expectations are also upheld by working in partnership with parents to ensure they do not condone absences for trivial reasons and know that family holidays should be planned in school holidays rather than during term time.
One way to convince parents of this is to explain that teachers plan sequential lessons and that persistent absenteeism can severely disrupt pupils’ learning. It is very difficult to catch up on lessons lost and impossible to recapture the experience of quality first teaching through worksheets or one-to-one intervention.
High expectations should also mean taking a zero-tolerance approach to unexplained absences and following up with parents who have not provided an explanation for their child’s absence.
If attendance is to be managed effectively, staff need to be appropriately skilled. This includes in how to hold difficult conversations with pupils and parents and may involve training or coaching. It will certainly require high levels of support from senior leaders.
“ Without parental support and understanding, it is unlikely that any strategies will be effective in the long term ”
Step 4: Data and intervention
A school needs an effective electronic system that provides effective data in a timely manner. Here, it is important that data is monitored ‘live’ rather than evaluated at a later time such as at the end of a week, month, term or year. If data is analysed as it happens, then action can be taken quickly.
This data analysis should include:
- trends over time – attendance might still be lower than desired but may be improving
- patterns for different groups of pupils such as by gender, ethnicity and learning needs
- patterns in attendance over the week, the school year and across year groups.
Having effective data also enables schools to move towards a data-driven attendance improvement strategy which enables the early identification of children at risk of poor attendance.
To ensure data is valid and useful, it may be necessary to train staff and regularly issue reminders. They need to be aware of the importance of filing accurate and prompt registers, as well as the appropriate use of codes. They need to discern lateness from absence in a consistent manner.
Once the data has been analysed, it needs to be acted upon and this means providing intervention and support. It is crucial that schools intervene early if a pupil’s attendance begins to deteriorate and this includes offering support to parents if their child refuses to go to school.
Intervention may involve addressing school-based barriers to attendance such as bullying and friendship issues. It might involve providing uniform, stationery or textbooks to pupils in financial need and whose lack of resources causes embarrassment. Intervention may also involve setting up a pupil support group which explores the reasons for absences and develops an attendance improvement plan or a ‘return to school’ plan.
Intervention may take the form of specialist support from external agencies such as health professionals or enlisting the help and advice of other schools, organisations and community groups. Finally, intervention may be about enlisting a mentor for those pupils who are at risk.
Step 5: Parents
It is important that parents or carers are not only informed about matters relating to attendance but are also fully involved in the process. Parents should be regarded as partners in securing good attendance. In this way they will better understand its importance and be more able and willing to uphold high expectations at home, accepting any sanctions or referrals to outside agencies.
One way to help parents become partners is to use technology to alert them to non-attendance as soon as it comes to light. For example, text messages and emails are more effective at flagging up issues as they happen, rather than trying to make phone contact or send letters after the event.
Not only is it helpful to consult with parents on the contents of an attendance policy, it is also wise to collaborate with parents on their child’s attendance improvement plan or ‘return to school’ plan. Often these plans address practical issues such as getting an alarm clock, negotiating transport or changing family routines. Parents are better placed than teachers to ensure these things happen.
A partnership is a two-way process of course, and so the school should encourage parents to seek support from, and communicate regularly with, school leaders and teachers when help or advice is needed.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: