Attendance officer working practices: Finding a new path

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Joanne Sierzega asks how we can engage and work with children,
parents and families in a meaningful way in the present circumstances.
She outlines the challenges and considers how they can be overcome
whilst also keeping in touch with whole-school policy.

Summary

  • There are many challenges currently facing the attendance officer and new and amended ways of working are needed.
  • Maintain some general good practice points whilst adapting your methods of working.
  • Consider your usual methods and find adaptations that are compatible with school and safeguarding policy.

Officers are facing many challenges in addressing the non-attendance of children since the return to compulsory school attendance in September 2020. One particular challenge is how we can engage with parents, carers, children and young people on a practical level whilst working within the boundaries of Covid-19 risk assessments, school policies, Department for Education (DfE) and Public Health England (PHE) guidance.

What are the current challenges?

Some of the challenges we’re facing include:

  • limited or no direct contact with children and pupils in school due to the school’s risk assessments and bubbles for Covid-19
  • inability to hold meetings in person, or hold minimal meetings in person, such as attendance reviews, attendance panels, pre-legal action planning meetings or multi-agency meetings on the school site or other venues
  • restrictions on home visits so that, in the main, only doorstep cold calls are possible
  • parents refusing to allow a visit to be undertaken or children to be seen due to concerns about Covid-19
  • a need to ensure that staff health and well-being is protected in line with risk assessments
  • a need to comply with government guidance and legislation around self-isolating families and individuals
  • adults and children who may be fearful of contact with additional people due to Covid-19
  • adults and children who may be fearful due to press and publicity over legal action and fines
  • inability of some families to have access to technology or the money to enable the use of technology.

There can be some flexibility. Occasionally, visits may need to take place in the home where agreed and planned with parents. In these cases, risk assessments must be undertaken and measures put in place to minimise risk and take into account current guidance. However, the challenges listed here are ones that attendance officers are facing every day.

How can we overcome them?

At CSAWS, we have looked at the range of ways we can deliver our service and engage with children and families to remove barriers to attendance in the current circumstances. We have considered which of our existing interventions we can still use, what needs to be adapted, and we’ve also looked at new ways of working.

 We started with some general good practice points, as follows:

  1. Good quality casework to improve attendance is based on assessment that includes parents’ and pupils’ views and voices being heard. This enables us to plan interventions based on an understanding of need.
  2. When addressing continued non-school attendance, interventions need to meet evidential requirements for local authorities, should we ultimately progress to enforcement referrals.
  3. We should optimise use of digital technologies and telephone contacts wherever possible and appropriate.

We considered specific interventions, and alongside our Covid-19 risk assessment, wrote practice guidance for our team.  This linked to our wider service standards and policies (including expectations for officer conduct and safeguarding). Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, we are finding that a blend of the following is an effective way to engage with parents, carers and children in the current context.  

Home visits

Home visits (cold calling and planned visits) continue to be a significant area of our work and specialism. They are important to establish the whereabouts and well-being of children who are absent from school, and to enable us to engage children and parents to improve attendance.

Home visits must be undertaken in line with a Covid-19 risk assessment that safeguards all parties and must not breach government guidance or legislation on self-isolating.  As most visits will currently need to be on the doorstep, they will not be the most appropriate way to address more complex issues. 

Telephone calls

Telephone calls have always been part of the toolkit of interventions used by attendance officers.  They are often used to make initial contact with a family, express and explore any initial concerns/worries, and to agree any actions. It has now become necessary to hold a meeting by telephone.

To distinguish these from a less formal telephone call, we have put in place the following structure which is working well:

  1. Parents (and pupils where age appropriate) are written to, using the example letter included in the toolkit Letter – Invitation for telephone/online meeting to discuss attendance, to advise that a telephone meeting is required. This details the time, the date and the agenda for the meeting.
  2. The agreed agenda is followed in the meeting.
  3. A written record is completed using the appropriate template. Parents are sent a follow-up action plan as they would at a face-to-face meeting.
  4. Direct work with children and parents can also be completed by telephone.  This is confirmed by writing in advance, with agreed times and dates for calls to take place. The purpose and outline of the session is shared in advance.
  5. Telephone contact with a child is agreed with the parent in advance, using the example consent form (Form – Example guidance and consent form for an online meeting). The child and parents must be present at home. This is via the contact number of the parent and not the child.

We have had a positive take-up of meetings to date and, in some cases, they have been more successful than the face-to-face version.

Video meetings and contact work

Where parents have access to the technology and give consent using the example consent form, meetings and direct work have been undertaken. We have used appropriate video conferencing apps such as Microsoft Teams and, for best practice and to maximise engagement, we have put in place the following:

  1. Meetings are agreed by telephone call, writing or doorstep visit in advance. 
  2. Meetings are confirmed in writing (see Letter – Invitation for telephone/online meeting to discuss attendance), including the length of the meeting/session and the agenda.
  3. An email is sent from the work email address to the parent’s email address with a link or an invite for the session.
  4. A written record is made of the meeting/session.
  5. Parents and carers are sent a copy of the written action plan.
  6. Where a direct work session is planned with a child or young person, the parent must also be at home.
  7. When undertaking direct work with children, the screen can be shared to use for resources, activities and games.

We have found this to be a useful addition to our toolkit. We have had
cases where parents would not respond to home visits, would not allow a child to be seen and would not attend meetings, but did however agree to a virtual meeting with the child present. This has led to some successful outcomes of getting children back into school.

Compatability

Attendance officers need to ensure their practice complies with the following before they adapt their ways of working:

  1. It needs to be reflected in school policies and procedures.
  2. It must be in line with child protection and safeguarding policies and staff codes of conduct.
  3. It needs to comply with relevant risk assessments. 
  4. It must be agreed with the senior leadership team.
  5. It needs to take into consideration other known barriers to communication such as mental health needs, language, literacy and communication difficulties.
  6. It must maintain compliance with General Data Protection Regulations and confidentiality.

Further information

Toolkit

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

Joanne Sierzega worked for almost 16 years in local authority education welfare. Since then she has established CSAWS (Central School Attendance and Welfare Services Ltd) with two partners. CSAWS comprises a team of education welfare officers who are committed to achieving better outcomes for children by securing regular attendance at school.

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About Author

Joanne Sierzega

Joanne Sierzega worked for almost 16 years in local authority education welfare. Since then she has established CSAWS (Central School Attendance and Welfare Services Ltd) with two partners. CSAWS comprises a team of education welfare officers who are committed to achieving better outcomes for children by securing regular attendance at school.

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