The attendance officer is in a frontline position to spot safeguarding issues. Persistent absenteeism and sudden changes in patterns of attendance are a key indication that something is wrong. In this article, Richard Steward outlines some important factors in carrying out your safeguarding responsibilities.
- Teachers must be trained to support the attendance officer in spotting changes in attendance patterns.
- It is vital that data is used to prompt questions about underlying trends, both individual and school-wide.
- If the attendance officer is not satisfied with the response to a safeguarding concern, they should follow this up.
The careful monitoring of attendance is key to improving the overall performance of schools, but it is equally important in keeping children safe. Knowing who is absent, and why, is fundamental to effective safeguarding and, for that reason, detailed scrutiny of a school’s attendance procedures is now at the heart of Ofsted’s approach to the inspection of safeguarding.
The effective monitoring of attendance starts with accurate record keeping and it is vital for senior leaders to make this a high priority. It is easy for overworked teachers to rush through register taking in the mornings, with some taking a lax attitude to collecting and recording absence notes.
However, if teachers are trained to appreciate the importance of accuracy, registers can become one of the most important tools in the armoury of the designated safeguarding lead (DSL). The link between poor attendance and safeguarding issues is clear, but staff need to be reminded of the need for vigilance. They need to be able to spot attendance patterns and recognise changes in pupil behaviour which may lead to, or explain, sudden or extended absences.
Of course, record keeping needs to go beyond register taking and it is good practice for DSLs to record every meeting and intervention that takes place to support an individual child. Not only does this protect the school if an issue escalates, or if a complaint is lodged, but it allows staff to evaluate the effectiveness of their work, and the procedures in place to protect the children in their care. This often leads to refinements in the system which serve to make safeguarding in the school much more effective.
Not just persistent absentees
Attendance officers and DSLs spend a great deal of time dealing with persistent absence, and teachers are generally aware that pupils who miss large chunks of their schooling will be identified and dealt with by senior staff. They are also aware that these pupils are likely to have complex needs which stretch way beyond the walls of the classroom.
There are, however, less obvious patterns which can easily go unnoticed if staff are not sufficiently vigilant. Sudden absences, for example, may well be due to illness, or a bereavement in the family, but they could also be more sinister, particularly if they are unexplained. The quiet, hard-working girl from a religious family who is rarely absent could be about to become the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), for example.
In the vast majority of cases, sudden absences are explained when the child returns to school but staff need to be ready to ask questions just in case.
“It is important to explain that the school’s aim is simply to keep children safe; chasing attendance is not a matter of pointless bureaucracy”
Effective tutors get to know their tutees, and good teachers know the children in their classes. They are therefore able to notice changes in behaviour, or be aware of events at home, that provide the background for sudden or unexplained absences. Children who become withdrawn, or who start acting differently in class and who are then absent, should be flagged up.
Patterns of absence, including persistent and sudden absence, are clear signs that something is wrong and all staff should be trained to report their concerns, however minor, for the DSL to investigate. Absences may well be due to illness, but they could equally be linked to safeguarding issues such as bullying, family break-ups, domestic abuse, involvement in county lines or online grooming, for example.
In many parts of the country, social services are stretched to breaking point and schools have had to step in to fill the gaps. This has led to the increasing importance of roles such as attendance officers, school counsellors and family liaison workers. It also means that a great deal of work has to be done to protect children before social workers get involved. The key to early intervention, of course, is good communication between schools and social services and, in particular, strong links with parents.
Dialogue with parents
As soon as children join the school, parents need to be made aware of the attendance policy and the measures taken to monitor each child’s attendance in class. This usually means a simple phone call from a parent on the first day of absence and an explanatory note upon the child’s return.
It is important to explain that the school’s aim is simply to keep children safe; chasing attendance is not a matter of pointless bureaucracy. Parents also need to be aware that the procedures are rigorous and that absences will always be questioned.
For the majority of parents, such systems are all that is needed. There will always be a group of parents, however, who need much more support. It is here where the attendance officer, or the person responsible for family liaison, steps in.
Working with parents who need more support requires real sensitivity and a background of establishing relationships. Building trust and confidence is vital. Through these discussions, children can be helped to get back into school and school liaison may feel that there are no additional safeguarding concerns.
However, such discussions can also lead to deeper concerns and attendance officers and home liaison should not hesitate in raising these with the DSL. They can then be reported to social services in order to ensure that support is put in place to help the parents and protect the child.
Remember that the attendance officer, like every member of school staff, is responsible for keeping children safe. If you feel that insufficient action has been taken, then it is also your responsibility to pursue this further with the DSL, headteacher or governing body. If necessary, you can approach social care yourself with your concerns.
Keeping the balance
Schools have become much better at monitoring the progress of vulnerable groups, including Pupil Premium students, looked after children and those with special needs or disabilities. The attendance of these groups should of course be given high priority, but staff need to look out for unusual attendance patterns affecting any child in the class.
They also need to be aware of the need for sensitivity as the simplest of conversations can sometimes lead to revelations which need urgent investigation by senior staff. It is also important, however, for staff to do their best to maintain relationships and trust. In most cases, a family holiday is just that, and an unexplained absence is due to illness and a busy parent who has forgotten to contact the school.
Schools where attendance is closely monitored, where staff are well trained, where there are good communication links with parents, and where effective systems are in place to deal with issues quickly and sensitively, are well equipped to keep children safe.