How was the return to school for you? Victoria Franklin has been speaking to some attendance officers about their experiences and highlights a number of issues they’ve been facing as pupils have returned to the classroom.
- There was apprehension amongst attendance officers about what to expect and if plans would work.
- There has been an increase in the number of queries from parents as they try to understand the rules.
- Some families are continuing to want to shield although this finished on 1 August.
- Attendance officers are required to continue submitting the daily attendance return.
From the start of the Autumn term 2020, attendance at school became mandatory again. The government reinstated the law relating to compulsory school attendance and schools prepared for full opening and the return of all students. Guidance was issued before the Summer break to support the safe opening of schools and to inform parents and children how a return to school would work.
Updated school attendance guidance was published, including changes to the use of codes to record absence specifically related to Covid-19 in line with national public health advice. Throughout the summer, polls indicated that parents generally supported the re-opening of schools for all children and indicated that they would send their children back. This was encouraging but, until the first day children could attend, this could not be confirmed.
How did attendance officers feel?
Attendance officers report feeling apprehensive about the return – what would the school look like and would the prepared action plans actually work in practice? All agreed that preparation was essential and played a key role in encouraging good attendance.
Overall, the return was felt to be much more positive than anticipated. An example shared here from Tracey Hall, attendance lead at Werneth School, supports this:
‘Our attendance team had worked tirelessly the two weeks before school returned, contacting parents and students who had expressed concerns and anxieties through a questionnaire we had sent out. The school had produced a thorough action plan that, I believe, made the return to school better than we could have imagined. The phased return, parental and student engagement, year group bubbles and designated social areas have been particularly successful. In fact, it resulted in 98% of all students returning.’
This is also the experience of Sue Toke, attendance and safeguarding lead at The East Manchester Academy:
‘All staff at TEMA returned to school full time for the last two weeks of the term in July. As such, staff were able to organise and prepare for September. In addition, we ended the term with two inset days reflecting on our activities during partial school closure including how we have supported families, and we were able to introduce our risk assessment, change of school day and proposals for working within year group bubbles for September.’
Attendance officers felt that the work they had put in with families over the period of school closure had strengthened their relationship with the community significantly. Many had stepped outside their role to run food banks, deliver school work/laptops and make frequent telephone calls to check in with students. Some schools have reported higher than usual attendance for the start of the new academic year.
Attendance officers are dealing with an increased number of direct phone calls from parents seeking advice about illness and whether to send their child to school. They are also asking for clarification on Covid-related guidance. The impact has been less time for attendance officers to focus on other attendance-related tasks.
The priority is on supporting families to feel reassured and confident about the return to school, so this communication is seen as vital. However, it has still led to parents keeping their child away from school when ordinarily they may have sent them in. A personal approach is necessary regarding absence as there are many sensitivities to address.
The issue of shielding
A particular area of concern is the number of parents who are reluctant to send their child back to school because they themselves, the child or a sibling have a serious medical condition. This is despite shielding having ceased on 1 August. In some cases, this has been supported by a medical letter.
More clarification is needed in this area as schools are being asked to follow the ‘no shielding’ guidance and make decisions about recording this type of absence. This is particularly difficult for attendance officers to manage.
“A personal approach is necessary regarding absence as there are many sensitivities to address”
Coding absence has changed: Schools have been asked to use a specific code when absence relates to Covid-19 circumstances as laid out by the DfE/Public Health but the above scenario of shielding is not covered by this. Some attendance officers have created a specific spreadsheet relating to the use of this code to monitor Covid-19-related absence internally. This is especially important to ensure children are not absent for longer than required (see the toolkit Form – Attendance tracker and DfE guidance related to this, which can be found as a link at the end of this article).
A continued requirement for attendance officers is the completion of the daily attendance return to the DfE. The format has changed from the form previously required before the Summer and this was issued with guidance and a support line to assist with completion. This has now become an additional administration task which provides useful information for the DfE and the government and helps establish a picture of what is happening across the country.
Some positive outcomes
Maxine Goddard (attendance manager) and Jo Long (attendance officer) at Bulmershe School discussed the impact that a full day at school was appearing to have on many children who were unusually tired and who had got out of a routine, with some parents and students requesting time to adjust.
The return to secondary school has been difficult for some younger Year 7 students who did not have the benefit of planned transition visits and are finding the new environment overwhelming. This has led to an increase in anxiety, school refusal and referrals to the school counsellor. On a positive note, keeping Year 7 in their own bubble has been sighted as a protective factor and one that is being considered for adoption for subsequent new Year 7 students on admission.
Changes to the school day at The East Manchester Academy have allowed extra lessons to be factored in, to aid catch-up with learning as well as three different break and lunchtimes which have facilitated a calm and organised environment.
Attendance officers play a key role in helping to sustain good attendance patterns and in supporting children and families with the issues that can prevent this. The ability to record and identify patterns of absence and to act quickly will be ever more vital throughout this academic year.
For updated school attendance information and information on recording absence or improving attendance, see:
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: