Attendance planning for the new academic year: Taking stock and thinking strategically

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Finally, the academic year 2021/22 is approaching and, with it, time to look afresh at where we were in 2019 and where we hope to be next year. Joanne Sierzega poses some important questions to help attendance leads plan ahead.

Summary

  • It is important to remind yourself of pre-Covid-19 issues and familiarise yourself with the trends nationally and for your school.
  • Consider last year’s data alongside the known impact of the restrictions and closure of schools.
  • Apply best practice solutions to the issues you have highlighted and amend your plans and procedures accordingly.  

When it comes to attendance, it feels like we have been reacting to a continually evolving situation for the past 12 months with little time, space or capacity to think strategically. At the time of writing, we are approaching the Summer term with the hope of some stability and of adapting to a new normal.    This seems like an opportunity to reflect on where we have come from attendance-wise and what we need to be focusing on to plan for the coming academic year.

What do we know about persistent absence and attendance pre-Covid-19?

We have national and local absence data identifying national averages for attendance and persistent absence (PA) published by the DfE for several years on an annual basis.  This gives us a historical picture of what the key issues have been over time for school attendance and absence.  

The most recent national data includes absence and persistent absence levels nationally for schools for the academic year 2018/19 by phase/type, group, deprivation level and reason. Evidence shows that low attendance is linked to poorer outcomes.

The data that has been collated and published over past years has highlighted certain patterns and trends consistently:

1.   Some vulnerable groups have consistently higher rates of PA and absence. These include:

  • pupils entitled to free school meals (current and Ever 6)
  • children with SEN support
  • children with an EHCP.

2.   Children who are children in need (CIN) and who have been in receipt of a statutory social work intervention, child protection or CIN in the past 12 months have higher levels of absence and PA.

3.   Absence and PA levels in Year 1 are the highest absence level in primary schools; these levels reduce into Key Stage 2 but increase again slightly for Years 5 and 6. 

4.   Absence and PA in secondary schools is higher than primary and increases with each year group. 

5.   Absence and PA in special schools and PRUs are higher than in mainstream schools.

6.   There are some differences in absence and PA levels by deprivation, ethnicity and gender.

Schools have access to their own absence and attendance data for the academic year 2019/20 up until March 2020 (pre-Covid-19) which should give a clear baseline of who was PA, and what the school data tells us about absence by group and reason for that particular school/setting. Schools should be used to analysing this data and using it to inform a strategic plan.

“Those in more vulnerable groups, living in areas of higher deprivation and from certain ethnicities will have been disproportionately impacted”

What do we know about the impact of Covid-19 on persistent absence and attendance?

Whilst we do not know what the longer-term picture is, we do know that there is emerging evidence that children will have been negatively impacted by Covid-19 and by the disruption to school attendance.  Evidence is also emerging that those in more vulnerable groups, living in areas of higher deprivation and from certain ethnicities will have been disproportionately impacted.

For further evidence and information, a recommended read is ‘Lost learning, lost earnings’ by the Sutton Trust, which details the negative impact Covid-19 has had on learning and future opportunities for those from a low socio-economic background. Initial information published in ‘How safe are our children? 2020’, a survey by the NSPCC, highlights some of the issues that have impacted children.

Weekly national attendance data has been published since March 2020. This data reflects the actual percentage of children in school, rather than the attendance figure, which differs due to the ‘X’ code. This data tells us something about the impact of Covid-19 regulations on absence levels and that vulnerable children still have lower levels of attendance.

Schools have a range of attendance data including the Autumn term 2020 and 8 March-to-date, both of which gives an indication of what attendance looks like when all are expected to attend but with regard to Covid-19 regulations.

What conclusions can we draw?

From looking at the patterns and trends pre-Covid-19 and the impact of it on our school community, we can begin to move forward and use the information to inform our attendance planning.

Some of your conclusions are likely to include the following.

1.   Attendance and absence management needs to be a priority for schools.  Regular attendance will support and underpin Covid-19 recovery and catch up.

2.   There will be some children who were PA pre-Covid-19 whose attendance has continued to be poor throughout the pandemic. Issues that may have impacted on attendance pre-Covid-19 will have been exacerbated or new issues will have arisen. 

3.   There are some children who had previously good attendance who have been impacted by Covid-19 and now have poor attendance.

4.   The gap between the vulnerable and non-vulnerable groups has potentially increased and these are areas that will continue to need to be a focus.

5.   Attendance and absence data available in schools can help us understand the impact of Covid-19 on attendance.

6.   We can still track and target attendance of groups and individuals but we need to understand the impact of the ‘X’ code and the different periods of attendance/register coding which makes interpreting data more complex — but not impossible (for more on this, see the toolkit Checklist – Evaluation of attendance strategy).

What best practice should we apply?

As attendance lead, you will already have an awareness of best practice when it comes to improving attendance and reducing PA. Generally, this will be as relevant now as it was before Covid-19.

Some examples include the following. 

1.   Attendance planning should be led by the senior leadership team and be high profile/high priority.

2.   There should be a strategic/whole-school approach informed by attendance data and an understanding of the issues impacting on attendance.

3.   There should be clear and consistent expectations that are communicated.

4.   There should be clear policies and procedures, understood by all and applied consistently.

5.   The attendance policy should be linked to attainment and outcomes for children (including catch-up post-Covid-19).

6.   There should be consistent attendance tracking of groups and individuals.

7.   There should be early intervention in place.

8.   Assessments of the reasons for absence/poor attendance in individual cases should be based on current information and understood in a historical context.

9.   There should be planned interventions to improve attendance for individuals and groups that are evaluated and reviewed in line with appropriate timescales, minimising drift and delay.

10. There should be an appropriate balance of challenge and support to address attendance concerns.

11. There should be partnership working with other agencies and multi-agency working/plans that give a high priority to attendance.

The DfE has published a document that sets out the principles underpinning a whole-school strategy (see the Further Information box below).

Key questions

These key questions might be used to help you plan strategically for 2021/22.

They are included in the toolkit on page 30 as a resource.

1.   Is your attendance policy and procedure fit for purpose and does it reflect the current legislation, guidance and support available?

2.   Do all school staff, parents and pupils understand the attendance expectations, procedures and support available? Consider the use of questionnaires/surveys or focus groups.

3.   Do you communicate the current attendance expectations, procedure, and support clearly and consistently?

For example:

  • on your website
  • in whole-school communications
  • in template letters
  • in conversations that all staff have with pupils and parents.

      Do any of these documents need updating?

4.   Is your attendance tracking and targeting system for identifying children whose attendance is a concern fit for purpose?

Does it:

  • help you to identify the ‘X’ code (Covid-19-related absence) and absence not related to Covid-19?
  • help you identify concerning patterns for all types of absence?

5.   Do all staff understand how to interpret and respond to absence data for individual pupils for 2020/21 and for the coming year?

6.   Do all pupils whose attendance was identified as a concern in 2020/21 have an appropriate action plan to improve attendance for 2021/22? How will these plans be reviewed?

7.   Do you have the right links with other agencies and external partners for 2021/22?

8.   What does your PA and attendance data pre-Covid-19 and during Covid-19 tell you about specific issues that you need to address in relation to absence and attendance?  Are there any resource issues or training needs linked to these?

9.   What groups or vulnerable groups are identified in your absence data for high absence/PA pre-Covid-19 and during Covid-19 that need to be a particular focus for the academic year 2021/22?

10. Do your staff feel confident in discussing attendance and planning interventions and accessing support and services to address attendance concerns or are there any training needs?

11. Where can pupil premium and catch-up funding be used to support attendance/reduce absence?

Further information

  • ‘Improving school attendance: support for schools and local authorities’, DfE, 2021: https://bit.ly/3e07y1V

Toolkit

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

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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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