Bringing them all back: One school’s experience

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With attendance at 97% on the first day back, headteacher Emma Meadus
and her staff were quietly optimistic. But what about the six children who didn’t attend? In this article, Emma explains through case studies the measures they’ve taken and the support they’ve provided to bring everyone back to school.

Summary

  • Some families remain very anxious about the situation and this has impacted on their child’s attendance.
  • Coppice Valley Primary School had decided to prioritise attendance.
  • Case study one outlines the different approaches taken.
  • Case study two focuses on transition anxiety.

In June, the government made it clear in their guidance that non-attendance at school would not be penalised, either for parents or for schools. This effectively meant that attendance was optional. At the time, this was a considerate decision, taking into account the complexities of the situation – everyone was struggling to come to terms with the new world order around coronavirus.

However, on our return to school in September, attendance was no longer optional as all year groups and all children were expected to be back in class. Fines could be levied if parents did not send their children back to school. At the time of writing, ‘business as usual’ is the message … except school business is far from usual right now, so what is the right approach to take towards attendance?

As a multi-academy trust, we decided that fining would not be our initial response to non-attendance. It would be the last resort, having exhausted all other measures.

Families struggling to cope

Corona-related complications with attendance started before school even returned. In August, I was emailed by a parent to say that they had no way of getting their children to school anymore. The pandemic had impacted on their family in such a way (illness, delayed hospital treatments and redundancy) that the parent was now housebound and without a support system to get the children to school. The question was, could the school help?

As a small school, we don’t have staff to do pick-ups or the funds to provide taxis so I approached local charities and the county council to see if they had volunteers or grants that could help. Unfortunately, they were overwhelmed and could not offer support. In the end, the family managed to get their wider family to reorganise their work schedules to help them but I hate to think what would have happened if they hadn’t been able to.

Analysing attendance: The early stages

On our first day back, attendance was at 97%. Not too bad as a percentage but the 3% represented six children. Over the summer, we’d planned to prioritise attendance on Day 1, determining to fact-find the causes of non-attendance promptly so we could get the necessary support in place rapidly.

By lunchtime we’d established that:

  • one child was quarantining after a holiday
  • one thought school started the next day
  • one was unwell
  • one had moved out of the area and had decided to home educate
  • two couldn’t be reached at all on the phone.

Therefore we had two children that we needed a robust response to: Case A and Case B.

“The school’s planned response was to be caring, clear and consistent”

Case A: Anxiety overload

Sarah hadn’t been in school since closure, despite being in the government’s qualifying categories for school-based care since March. In fact, before the official start of school closure, mum had kept Sarah at home for a few weeks, citing fear of the virus.

Prior to this, Sarah was in our persistent absentee category, having dipped as low as 50% attendance. Despite our best efforts, we’d not been able to convince mum to let Sarah come into school during the closure. We’d kept in touch with weekly phone calls, but after a while she’d stopped answering the phone and didn’t reply to emails.

It did not, therefore, come as a surprise that Sarah did not attend school on the first day back. The office staff phoned home but there was no answer. Because we’d planned our persistent absentee response beforehand, Sarah was on our list for immediate referral to our family support worker. This meant the office staff could move on to the next non-attendee on the list, leaving our family support worker to begin calling the home using other phone lines.

Making contact and offering solutions

We’d put together a simple form for our family support worker to use to record the key information around the child, the contact and the actions to be taken. By the end of the day, she’d managed to get hold of mum. Mum’s anxiety levels were off the chart. The family had barely left the house since March, she explained, so high was her fear of catching the virus.

The school’s planned response for such a scenario was to be caring, clear and consistent. In practice, this meant we would show sympathy and understanding for the predicament a parent found themselves in, offering a support plan for transitioning into school whilst also being very clear about the choices available to them, including the timeframe for action to be taken.

In Sarah’s case, the family support worker offered mum an opportunity to come to the school, after hours, to see first-hand what provisions for health and safety had been put in place. She talked about the possibility of a part-time timetable, building up her confidence. She also made it clear that attendance was no longer optional and that she may be fined, in the long run, if she didn’t provide an education for her child. Unfortunately, mum did not attend the meeting organised. The family support worker arranged another meeting. Another no-show.

Spiralling concerns and actions

The next step was to try and arrange a meeting between mum and our pastoral worker and the classteacher in a local park or even in the garden of the family home. The thought was, if we couldn’t get mum to the school, we’d try to get the school to mum. At this point, we were on Day 5 and mum had stopped answering our daily calls, whichever phone line we used.

By Day 8, we decided a home visit was in order, just to check on the family’s welfare. All the curtains were drawn and there were no signs of life, so the police were called to perform a welfare check. They checked their systems and found no record of hospital admission or emergency calls. Without this, the police said there was no case for them to visit the house in person themselves and that this was an attendance matter for the school to handle.

“Covid-19 measures have made the usual school transition measures completely redundant”

A last resort

With little left in my attendance toolkit to use, I was left with no choice but to send a letter to mum, outlining her choices. This wasn’t an easy decision for me. I fully empathised with her as a mum myself. These are unprecedented times and I could understand her fears. However, at our attendance strategy meeting in the holidays, we’d decided that 10 days’ non-engagement from a family would be our line in the sand.

I never want to play hard-ball when it comes to attendance; I much prefer to work with a family, keeping a good relationship and building trust. Mental health awareness, for our pupils and our parents, is also very important to us as a school so I didn’t want to increase her anxiety levels with a heavy-handed letter. Unfortunately in this case, the coping strategy this parent was using was to stick her head in the sand and hope we would go away; something that I knew could not happen.

When a parent will not engage with the school (combined with the increasing safeguarding concerns I was having through lack of contact in this case), I’m left with no other option but to lay it on the line in a letter. My letter acknowledged her concerns, expressed my empathy but clearly explained the options – to provide her child with an education which could be home education or in school but if the latter, then she must engage with us. The letter explained that the family support worker would call at a given time and day to talk about her decision and how we could support her and Sarah in their transition.

Two days after the letter was delivered, the child was back in school. No transition or part-time timetable. After talking to the family support worker, mum explained that the letter was actually what she had needed to prompt her into action. She’s now leaving the house, doing the school run and has even enrolled her other child in nursery. Sometimes, it seems, some people actually need a firm stance from the school – it provides a boundary, a sense of security.

Our family support worker is making a point to speak to mum, face-to-face, several times a week to keep the communication going, to keep the positive relationship with the school and nip any concerns in the bud. So far, so good.

Case B: No transition

Imagine being 4 years old, speaking very little English, never having been in a nursery or pre-school setting before and never having been separated from your parents. Meet Berat, one of our new Reception pupils.

Covid-19 measures have made the usual school transition measures completely redundant. We have a fantastic transition policy into Reception that includes multiple visits into school with and without parents, staying for lunch, invites to end of year shows, the school fair, sports day, etc.

Our EYFS team do nursery/setting visits in July and home visits in the first week of September. We even have Key Stage 2 buddies sending letters and photos through the summer holidays. It’s a brilliant offer and our children come to school in September with high well-being levels and no tears. However, this year we couldn’t do any of it!

Alternative transition arrangements

I’ve got an amazing EYFS team and they found ways around the problem. Instead of home visits, we had gazebo visits, where the families booked a slot to come to school to meet their teacher under a socially-distanced gazebo on the school grounds. While the child played for 20 minutes with a teaching assistant, parents and teacher could talk about the child and how best to transition them into school (full day, half days, potential concerns, etc).

We bought every child a school-branded teddy bear and asked them to send us photos throughout the summer of them with their teddy. The EYFS team made videos of the classroom as well as storytime videos. By the time it came to start school, the children felt as though they knew the place and the staff really well and bounded through the door on the first day. All, that is, except Berat.

Dealing with distress

Berat had not benefitted from any of this transition work. Covid-19 fear had struck again. The family had self-isolated from the start of lockdown, barely leaving the house. The language barrier had compounded the problem. Not understanding many of the messages from the government, they had gone to ground. We’d managed to have some communication over the telephone with them, so we knew they were safe and well, but even despite using an interpreter, the family did not want to engage in any transition, preferring to wait until September.

“Despite being prepared…it hit those of us dealing with it harder than usual on an emotional level because we could relate to the parents’ worries and concerns”

Berat was distraught from the minute he hit the playground and understandably so, because everything was utterly alien to him. In these circumstances, we might usually invite a parent into the class, to help the child settle and then the parent would slowly withdraw. Sometimes, we’d get a parent to leave their coat or their bag on a chair, to help the child know they’d be back soon but in this ‘new normal’ world, we couldn’t do any of that.

Risk assessing on the hoof, I invited dad to bring Berat into the outdoor learning area where no one else was, to see if we could settle Berat and distract him with the provision. However, no amount of toys were going to subdue Berat’s distress. After 20 minutes, we decided that the best thing would be for dad to go for just five minutes. During this time, Berat continued to be upset, but did start to bond with his teacher who comforted him while reading a story. After five minutes, dad returned and took Berat home.

It was heart-breaking to see a child so upset at the thought of being left in school, but it reinforced the importance of a good transition and how hard Covid-19 had made that for some families. In Berat’s case, we needed to come up with a bespoke transition plan. Each day we’ve lengthened the amount of time that mum or dad leave for, by just a few minutes.

Breaking through and trust

Each day, Berat is still upset on arrival but is beginning to have some periods of calm during his stay. Although he is not yet engaging with the other children, he has started to play in the provision and even painted a picture recently – a major win that we all celebrated. Berat is only up to staying for one hour now, after several weeks of school being in session, but that’s fine.

The family are engaging with us and following our lead, trusting us as professionals to care for Berat. His transition is going to be much longer than we’d like, meaning that progress through the early years curriculum will probably not be as good as we’d like it to be, but that’s just the way it has to be this year. Berat’s well-being and successful attendance in school has to come first.

Rigour and compassion

By Day 14, overall school attendance was at 99% – pretty good by anyone’s standards –and we are delighted to see all our children together learning after so long apart. Despite being prepared and having a strategy for absence due to corona-related anxieties, it hit those of us dealing with it harder than usual on an emotional level because we could relate to the parents’ worries and concerns. However, we’ve got a job to do, which is to open our schools to all our pupils. We’ve done that in a fair but rigorous way and we’ve managed to do it with a bit of compassion, we hope.

Toolkit

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

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Emma Meadus

Emma Meadus is headteacher of Coppice Valley Primary School and a member of the Red Kite Learning Trust.

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