Attendance issues for SEND pupils returning to school


The transition back to school has not been an easy one for many students. However, students with SEND may have found it particularly difficult to settle back into a normal routine and pick up from where they left off. Emily Kempthorne outlines some strategies for supporting them and enabling them to re-engage.


  • Key staff should review the student’s learning passport and complete a Covid recovery support plan.
  • Consider how any adjustments that need to be made can be implemented discreetly.
  • It should be harder for a student to be absent than to come in to learn.

In the current climate, now more than ever, attendance at school is vital, especially for our most vulnerable students and students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Bishop Young Academy in Leeds uses a range of strategies to enable students to re-engage with learning, particularly after such a long time away.

During the initial lockdown period, all SEND students from Bishop Young were assigned a key member of staff. These staff members were predominately teaching assistants, the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) or a designated safeguarding lead (DSL), who remained the contact throughout the school closure phase.

Contact was made once a week via email, phone and doorstep visits. Upon the students return in September, these relationships were celebrated and built on to ensure that each student and their family had a key point of contact as part of the transition back into school and into new year group bubbles.


Communication is key in ensuring that students and parents feel comfortable returning to school. It’s important to find the best way to communicate with parents, whether it’s through phone calls, texts, emails or face-to-face meetings.

Sometimes parents’ own experiences can be a barrier to getting their child into school. Try to use a neutral space to meet or a designated parental area if you have the luxury of space in your building. During this meeting, take the opportunity to review the student’s SEND learning passports and complete a Covid recovery support plan with the parents and the student to ensure that everyone is ready for the year ahead. The Covid recovery plan will enable you to unpick any obstacles that may have cemented themselves during lockdown.

Consider the use of PPE and whether the wearing of face visors and shields is more appropriate than face masks for teaching assistants and teaching staff to aid communication, especially where there is a speech, language and communication need (SLCN) or a hearing impairment (HI). A visor is also deemed less ‘threatening’ and can support a student feeling welcomed back into school as they can ‘see’ non-verbal cues, such as the smiles from staff. This lack of basic non-verbal and affirming gestures can be daunting and confusing to many.

“A visor is also deemed less ‘threatening’ as students can see non-verbal cues, such as the smiles from staff”

Early identification of barriers

As early as possible, identify the main barriers that are preventing the student from attending. If students are feeling anxious about the changes to school in relation to Covid-19, invite the parents and the student in for a socially-distanced walk around. Allow them to become acquainted with new year group bubbles. If needed, provide the family with visual timetables or examples of any changes to routine that have been made.

Provide detailed maps of the new year group areas and walk through new entrances, exits, access to the canteen, access to specific toilet blocks and a rundown of any new classes or staff members so that the new areas become normal or ‘usualised’.  Any barriers and key strategies can then be logged on the Covid recovery support plan to be shared with staff in conjunction with the SEND learning plan. Any further risk assessment can be completed where needed or if a student has been shielding.

Remember the importance of transition

Where appropriate, the use of a phased transition with a personalised timetable can help to ease students back into full-time learning. If you have capacity, top and tail the support each day so that the student can have a check-in and check-out each day. At Bishop Young, we have ‘The ARK’, which is a space dedicated for inclusive support and the base for the special educational needs team. Students can use an ‘ARK Pass’ (similar to a ‘time out’ pass) to access the ARK for 5–10 minutes during lessons or during unstructured social times.

Exemptions and reasonable adjustments

Ensure students feel comfortable, especially if there is a requirement for reasonable adjustments or exemptions to be made. Use specific stickers in the planner, identifiable badges and lanyards that students can point to instead of having to explain each time.

These tools can also be used so that staff can easily and subtly recognise the adjustment and therefore avoid challenging the student when it is not needed. An example of this is for face mask exemptions. Not all adjustments need to be publicised, such as a medical exit or a toilet pass; these can be discreet laminated passes or stickers within the planner that can be shown when a student needs to use them.

“It is essential that everyone involved with the family is consistent with their message regarding attendance”


Support and collaboration with external agencies such as a family support worker, social worker, or other keyworker that might be assigned to the family or the student, is crucial to establish consistency in ensuring the SEND student is returning and engaging with school. It is essential that everyone involved with the family is consistent with their message regarding attendance.

Invite the right people, who can be facilitators in getting students back into school, to meetings and keep them updated with any follow-up meetings or successes so that these can be shared inside and outside of school.

Ongoing monitoring

Attendance must be continually monitored on a regular basis. Informal check-ins can make sure that certain students are held to account after a day off, with key staff asking a simple: ‘How are you? We missed you yesterday’, or: ‘I hope everything is OK; I didn’t see you yesterday’.

Tracking attendance on a weekly basis enables you to catch any persistent dips in attendance or patterns that can be re-evaluated with the family and student in follow-up meetings. Accountability is key in building up resilience because ultimately, it needs to be harder to be absent than it is to come into school and learn.

All students, but especially vulnerable students, want to feel safe, accepted and have a sense of belonging. In order to support students to re-engage and improve attendance, we need to ensure that, as a school, we are able to create a nurturing and supportive environment where we are able to rebuild and recover, to ensure that students return back to school to maximise learning.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author


Emily Kempthorne is the Assistant Principal at Bishop Young Academy in Leeds. She has 14 years’ experience in education across the country and has recently completed her MEd in Special Educational Needs (SEND) and Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH). Emily can be contacted via email at or on Twitter: @KempthorneMs

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