Steve Baker gives his view of partnership working, and how to work with those in your community to improve attendance.
- School partners, such as GPs, police and social workers, can work together effectively to tackle absence in meaningful and rewarding ways.
- GP surgeries can support schools by providing a consistent message to parents about the importance of regular attendance.
- Many professionals will derive great pleasure and satisfaction from working with schools on a shared agenda.
There is a Californian school that, to put it bluntly, tags persistently absent pupils. Under this regime, those with repeated unexplained absences carry hardware linking them to GPS systems and, five times a day, they are required to check in to declare their wherabouts. The hardware costs around US$300-400 and parents are billed if it is lost. And it isn’t just California. Recently a judge in Texas ordered 22 students to wear these devices. A local radio station KBTX reported that: “Bryan High School students who skip school will soon be tracked 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Even those of us who occasionally let the words ‘tough love’ escape our lips might find this a little extreme. Of course, I might be eating my words in a few years, if these tags, like microwaves, ‘Trick or Treat’ and other American inventions, make their way across the pond!
Within our own community there are less drastic steps that can be taken, especially in healthcare. So what can GPs and school leaders do to work more closely and profitably together?
What can GPs do?
Most importantly, GP surgeries can support schools by providing a consistent message to parents about the importance of regular attendance. The most obvious example relates to appointment times. GPs can and should be encouraged to persuade parents to make medical appointments outside school hours. This message can be backed up by posters in waiting rooms that point out the time available for activities such as medical appointments, buying school shoes etc. GPs can also make sure that parents are aware of Public Health England’s latest advice for parents concerning various conditions.
They might also be persuaded to take on board the formalising of requests for authorisation. The accompanying form in the Toolkit section is used by the local authority (LA) in Wakefield and represents a halfway house between simply showing school the appointment card on the one hand and providing a doctor’s letter on the other.
What can schools do?
And what can schools offer in return?
- Shared CPD can be an option. If the school support staff are to receive training in ‘dealing with difficult people’, why not in-vite the surgery to send delegates?
- Networks of support staff, such as attendance officers and learning mentors, often prove invaluable in the fight against per-sistent absence:
- Might the school be a good venue for similar networking of local medical staff?
- Might the surgery want to be represented at a New parents’ Evening?
This might be an ideal opportunity for them to get their key messages across.
Commitment to partnership working is always boosted if there is a practical visible difference to be made. A few years ago, one inner-city primary school cleared a piece of waste ground adjoining the playground, with the voluntary help of local police and NHS workers, enabling the construction of a 5-a-side football pitch. Over the course of one weekend, 5,000 discarded needles were found and disposed of, an obvious ‘win-win’ for all concerned.
Partnerships and tackling persistent absence
During my time as behaviour and attendance consultant with an LA in the north of England, the Principal Education Officer and I were appalled to be labelled as an LA that was ‘persistently absent’ (PA). Appalled, that is, until we realised the poten-tial this temporary label had to focus hearts and minds on the PA agenda. Numbers of PA pupils decreased in our five target schools by 40% in a year. These were the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – i.e. quick gains made by raising awareness, installing sys-tems and drawing up action plans.
Having made these large early strides, we found the road got steeper. A small number of families seemed to be behind a large amount of absence and their chaotic, disengaged and, I would say, frightened disposition did not help.
So we set up meetings in localities. We booked a room in a local ‘PA’ target school and we provided basic refreshments. Then we invited schools, police, housing, GPs and others to attend. It was fascinating to hear from workers in a variety of roles, all of whom were regularly braving the garden path of the same families, begin to share frustrations, swap insights and tear down barriers between themselves.
My favourite example of joined-up thinking in the field of promoting school attendance took place in Kingston-Upon-Hull. The LA wrote a script and issued it to every council worker. The script covered what to say if you saw a school-age child who is at home during the school day. So if you were a plumber working in social housing and you saw a nine-year-old sitting on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle, you knew what to say; what a simple idea! It’s all about spotting who is in a position to gain access to the people we want to reach and then giving them the tools with which to make a difference.
I was recently in an academy where a local shopkeeper was not interested in working with the school on timekeeping. Situated two minute’s walk away from the school, where lessons start at 8.30am, he was happily serving pupils at 8.35am. All entreaties from the schools were met with indifference, until the school police officer helped him out by catching some shoplifters. Now the shopkeeper can’t do enough for the school, and pupils entering his shop after 8.25am leave empty handed.
Building a community
The extent to which creating a good climate for learning, building safer communities and supporting healthy sustainable lifetsyles overlap is mind-boggling, once professionals are lured out of their silos. In my experience, most of those professionals derive great pleasure and satisfaction from working within a shared agenda.
Every school is unique and so is each locality. The challenges vary and the possibilities for partnership working do too. With imagination and willingness to think outside the box, there is no limit to what can be achieved.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
About the author
Steve Baker, formerly a teacher for 17 years, is now a freelance behaviour and attendance consultant based in West Yorkshire. He works with leadership teams on their strategic planning, gives operational advice to frontline staff and works in classrooms to give developmental feedback to staff, transforming their behaviour leadership. In addition, Steve delivers courses for schools and colleges, speaks at conferences, writes for Optimus and supports local authorities with schools causing concern. He can be contacted his website, where you can also read his blog