How can we repair the damage done whilst also improving on what came before? Matt Bromley provides his advice for schools and their attendance officers as they take stock and re-build for the future.
- Vulnerable students will need both significant pastoral and academic support.
- Leadership and improvement planning are crucial to bringing attendance back on track.
- The catch-up premium provides some financial support to put plans in place.
‘Build Back Better’ is an approach to post-disaster recovery that represents an opportunity, not just to restore what was damaged or lost by the impact of disasters, but to build greater resilience in recovery by systematically addressing the root causes of vulnerability.
As our schools seek, albeit slowly, to return to ‘normal’ following the coronavirus pandemic, we too might embrace the spirit of ‘Build Back Better’ by rethinking the way we operate in order to learn lessons from the lockdown, including how we manage pupil attendance.
I’m not suggesting that the pandemic will – or indeed should – revolutionise the way our schools work, for this would be to suggest that, before Covid-19, schools were in some way broken and they were not. However, I am suggesting that we’d be wise to give pause and reflect on what we’ve learnt and make a commitment to do some things better in the future.
As a starting point regarding attendance management, I would refer you to my article in Issue 23 of Attendance Matters, in which I advocated a five-step plan, namely:
In Issue 25, I followed this up with advice on the importance of communication – including with parents. I would advocate that you return to those words now, as we rebuild our schools by listening and learning from others.
One of our early priorities when ‘Building Back Better’ should be the support we give to vulnerable pupils who are often at higher risk of non-attendance and persistent absenteeism. Broadly, this support might take two forms:
“Actively involving vulnerable pupils in planning for their full ‘normal’ return to school will help to reduce their worries”
In terms of pastoral support, we cannot simply resume ‘business as usual’ and assume pupils are ready and able to continue their schooling as if nothing has happened, save for an extended holiday. Nor can we assume that pupils who previously had attendance issues will now warmly embrace school life. Rather, we can anticipate that the lockdowns will have a long-lasting effect on their ability or willingness to attend school.
Of course, the national and local lockdowns – and the coronavirus pandemic more generally – will have affected vulnerable pupils to different degrees and in different ways. There is no such thing as a ‘typical child’ and we must treat each pupil as an individual and work to understand the barriers each child faces in attending school and doing so on time every day. However, I think we can be certain that all vulnerable children will have been affected in some way and we must therefore acknowledge this and address it.
A report by the World Health Organisation entitled ‘Building Back Better: Sustainable Mental Health Care after Emergencies’ (2013), says that during emergencies such as pandemics, mental health requires special consideration.
This is, it says, due to three common issues:
1. Increased rates of mental health problems.
2. Weakened mental health infrastructure.
3. Difficulties coordinating agencies providing mental health and psychosocial support.
It is certainly true that many of our more vulnerable pupils will have experienced trauma during lockdown, including perhaps as a result of bereavement, and that mental health issues are therefore likely to be more prevalent.
Mental health issues
It is also true that many pupils with existing mental health problems, some of whom may be persistent absentees, will have had less support during the pandemic and accessing specialist support will have been – and may continue to be – more difficult.
A British Psychological Society (BPS) report called ‘Back to school: using psychological perspectives to support re-engagement and recovery’ (2020), says that, in order to support pupils’ social, emotional and mental health needs post-trauma, we should first acknowledge that it is normal to experience a range of emotions. This may include a mixture of excitement, happiness and relief but it may also include anxiety, fear and anger.
In most cases, a whole-community response aimed at promoting positive reintegration and building resilience will, the BPS says, help to resolve their difficulties; for others, the use of school-based social, emotional and mental health resources and expertise will help.
Actively involving vulnerable pupils, those with low attendance and the difficult-to-reach in planning for their full ‘normal’ return to school will help to reduce their worries and the emotional impact of the process.
The BPS report also advocates building pupils’ resilience upon their return to school. The report says that resilience is not something that someone either does or does not have; it comes from how all the important parts of a person’s life interact: their friends, family, school and local community.
As such, we need to make sure that children have a strong sense of belonging, strong relationships, a sense of agency, high expectations, and that they can meaningfully contribute to their community.
As well as supporting our vulnerable pupils pastorally, we will need to address academic gaps upon their return to school too, not least to allay concerns that pupils, who often elect not to attend, may have about re-integrating with the curriculum.
It’s also possible that, with most learning moving online during the lockdowns, a ‘digital divide’ may have exacerbated the attainment gap, with more vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils struggling to access meaningful and sufficiently differentiated online learning than have their peers. Some pupils will be concerned about falling behind and may choose to absent themselves from school rather than face the challenge of catching up.
Involving the whole community in the process of supporting vulnerable pupils upon their return to school might help too. Reconnecting with local support services such as educational psychologists, education welfare officers, children’s social services, peripatetic teachers, child and adolescent mental health teams, and mental health practitioners is vital.
“All your school’s stakeholders should be afforded the opportunity to consult on the contents of the improvement plan, including on strategies for managing attendance”
I would argue that, as we return to ‘normal’, we need to manage attendance on the principles of ethical leadership in order to support our most vulnerable, including those with persistent absences who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
It is my belief that ethical leadership in education is driven by a respect for values and an unfaltering belief in the dignity and rights of others. Ethical leaders foster school cultures that are governed by fair, clearly-articulated expectations, rather than school cultures driven by personalities or politics. I talked about the importance of clear expectations around attendance and punctuality in my article in Issue 23.
A clear vision and mission
I would argue that, in an ethically-led school, there’s a clear vision and mission, and a set of shared values and principles, shared both in the sense that they are understood and in the sense that they are owned by everyone who works there.
Every action that is taken within these schools is sense-checked against the vision and mission. If the completion of the action would not aid the pursuit of the vision and mission, then the action isn’t deemed important. Actions are also sense-checked against these values and principles; again, if completion of the action would not uphold the school’s values and principles, or indeed would compromise or contradict them, then the action isn’t considered valid or valued.
Every element of an ethically-led school, from performance management appraisals to staff professional development, from expectations of pupil behaviour to the resourcing of the curriculum, and particularly in the way in which the school supports its most vulnerable pupils, also reflects this vision and mission, as well as these values and principles.
I’d also argue that ethical leaders cannot pick and choose which situations call for moral judgment or leave their principles at the door whenever it’s convenient. An ethical code provides the very foundations on which these schools are built and function day-to-day.
This is the kind of school and the kind of leader I think 2021 demands of us all. In practice, this means that all our actions for managing attendance form part of the school improvement plan and uphold our shared vision and mission.
“One way to improve attendance is to make an explicit link between attendance, educational outcomes and later success in life and work”
The centrality of the school improvement plan
It is, I think, important that any work you engage in now to support vulnerable pupils as they return to normal schooling, including to help pupils to attend and be punctual, forms part of the school improvement plan and does not sit in isolation.
Any attendance strategies should not only be included in the improvement plan but should arise as part of the whole-school improvement planning process, rather than be random additions to it. That is to say, actions should always be taken in the round and should always be sense-checked against the school vision and mission and be scrutinised for their ethics.
An effective school improvement plan articulates where you want your school to be and how you intend to get there. All your school’s stakeholders should be afforded the opportunity to consult on the contents of the improvement plan, including on strategies for managing attendance, so that they feel involved and invested in the process. I talked about this in my article in Issue 25.
You should make sure that your improvement plan sets high expectations for pupils, including for attendance and punctuality. You shouldn’t rest until you know it’s not possible for any pupil to fall through the net.
A whole-school approach to behaviour and attendance is, of course, much more than a set of policies or plans; it is about what everyone in your school does, how they behave, and what expectations are set and taught. It is also about the values and ethos of the school. Strong values underpin good attendance and punctuality.
In the best schools, the values underpinning an attendance policy are clear and explicit. Staff and pupils across the school know what the values are. In these schools, pupils know that good attendance and punctuality prepares them well for their future lives.
Indeed, one way to improve attendance is to make an explicit link between attendance and educational outcomes, and between educational outcomes and later success in life and work. Such a strategy can encourage pupils and their parents to appreciate the longer-term impact of absenteeism on their life chances and potential earnings.
Finally, you may decide to dedicate some of the Covid-19 catch-up premium to addressing concerns with vulnerable pupils and low or non-attendance towards the end of the 2020/21 academic year. If so, then this spending should also feature in the whole-school improvement plan.
As you will be aware, the DfE has earmarked £1 billion of funding to support children and young people in catching up. This figure is divided into two as follows:
1. A one-off universal £650 million catch-up premium for the 2020/21 academic year to ensure that schools have the support they need to help all pupils make up for lost teaching time.
2. A £350 million national tutoring programme (NTP) to provide additional, targeted support for those children and young people who need the most help.
Schools’ allocations of the funding will be calculated on a per pupil basis, providing each mainstream school with a total of £80 for each pupil in the years Reception through to Year 11. By way of illustration, a typical primary school of 200 pupils will receive £16,000, while a typical secondary school of 1,000 pupils will receive £80,000.
Though funding has been calculated on a per pupil or per place basis, schools should use the sum available to them as a single total from which to prioritise support for pupils according to their need.
As a starting point when deciding how to use the funding, I’d suggest you consider how your school is observing the key principles that underpin government advice, namely that:
- education is not optional: all pupils should receive a high-quality education that promotes their development and prepares them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life, and
- the curriculum remains broad and ambitious: all pupils continue to be taught a wide range of subjects, maintaining their choices for further study and employment.
To honour these principles, I’d contend that an effective use of some of the catch-up fund for managing attendance and punctuality is to:
- bolster home-school communications
- ramp up pastoral support for vulnerable pupils and their families, including on attendance
- make changes to the timetable and curriculum offer, including rewriting schemes of work
- ensure that remote education continues to be provided in some form and that it is of a high quality and aligns as closely as possible with in-school provision.
Your priorities, under the guidance of ethical leadership and within the structure of the school development plan, might be at least partially funded from this source.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: