Early intervention: raising attendance in primary schools

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Barry Archibald looks at the impact of poor attendance on achievement of pupils and strategies for raising attendance in primary schools.

Summary

    • It is important to set the highest expectations of pupil attendance and parental support for it in school policies, and to make these explicit to parents before admission and at regular intervals thereafter.
    • Remember to give out positive messages whenever possible, because if the first parents hear from school is about a problem, they may be less likely to respond constructively.
    • There needs to be on-going monitoring of attendance data, particularly for those pupils at risk of becoming persistent absentees.
    • It is vital to know which are the most vulnerable groups or pupil characteristics. As a starting point, look at any differences by gender, year group, free school meal eligibility, special needs and ethnicity.

Encouraging good attendance from an early age

Despite year-on-year improvements, the Department for Education (DfE) believes that attendance in primary schools is still too low, and that some schools appear complacent about improving it. A review, commissioned by the Secretary of State (Improving attendance at school) recommended an increased focus on primary attendance, concluding that the ‘roots of poor attendance are in primary schools’.

Other recommendations from that review included expecting all primary schools to pick up quickly on absence, including in nursery and reception classes. Data on 4-year-olds is now included in the national attendance statistics and will be taken into account by Ofsted.

Communicating with families

It is important to set the highest expectations of pupil attendance and parental support for it in school policies, and to make these explicit to parents before admission and at regular intervals thereafter.

An overly bureaucratic approach should be avoided, as standard letters and the like seem to have a limited impact. A personal approach is much more likely to bring about change. Remember to give out positive messages whenever possible, because if the first parents hear from school is about a problem, they may be less likely to respond constructively.

Be aware that parents may not have had a positive experience of school, and tailor approaches accordingly. A recent poll (School Days: the best days of your life?) found that most adults have fond memories of school days, but:

    • 30% admitted truanting
    • 19% classed themselves as ‘loners’ when at school
    • nearly half recalled being on the receiving end of various forms of aggression and maltreatment from other pupils.

The impact of absence on attainment and progress

Parents want their children to do well at school. We know that ‘bums on seats’ do not in themselves automatically lead to greater achievement, but if children are not present, there is no potential to progress. This is particularly relevant given the current focus on how schools are using their pupil premium.

The correlation between attendance and attainment is powerful information to share with parents. The most recent available data (2011) paints a stark picture. When asked, parents may say that 90% is a reasonable level of attendance, but the percentage of children achieving Level 4 in English and mathematics at the end of key stage 2 at that level of attendance falls to 58%, compared with 82% among the best attenders. Looking at Level 5 or above, the impact is even greater, falling from 27% down to 9%; a three-fold difference. Use this data to underpin the high expectations set out in the school policy, and make the same analysis for your school.

Using data to identify attendance issues

Data can only be used effectively if it is reliable and up to date. The importance of accurate registration cannot be overstated. It is not enough to look at attendance data every term or half term. There needs to be on-going monitoring, particularly for those pupils at risk of becoming persistent absentees.

Knowing who your vulnerable groups are

It is unlikely that absence will be evenly spread among all pupils, so it is vital to know which are the most vulnerable groups or pupil characteristics. As a starting point, look at any differences by gender, year group, free school meal eligibility, special needs and ethnicity.

Be prepared to think out of the box and ask what other characteristics may be relevant. For example, is absence more prevalent in particular postcodes, is it related to how children travel to school, is it more common in some classes than others?

It can also be very helpful to look at any variation in absence by day or week.

Targeting resources effectively

An analysis of absence by code can be very informative. As well as giving an indication of how consistent registration practice is, it will tell you what the main reasons are for absence. Be sure to include punctuality and any unexplained absences.

Absence due to holidays in term time is likely to be significant, at around 0.6 of a percentage point, but illness and medical appointments are likely to account for over 5½ times as much according to a DfE report, Pupil absence in schools in England, autumn 2012 and spring 2013. This would then seem to be where to concentrate efforts by being more appropriately questioning, using the available guidance about how much time pupils should need to be off for specific conditions, and being more assertive about the timing of appointments.

Early intervention

The key to improving and maintaining high levels of attendance is a consistently applied whole-school approach where everyone accepts and plays their part. A senior leader takes overall responsibility and ensures that parents are made aware of the actions the school will take to promote attendance and respond to absence.

Sharing what works

The majority of pupils and parents will respond positively to the stock of proven strategies, for example meet and greet, breakfast clubs, reward schemes, class competitions, displays, publicity and first-day contact.

If problems do arise, more focused interventions may be needed, such as late gates, school-based attendance workers, fast-track to attendance, attendance panels, parenting support, external support services and, ultimately, legal sanctions.
However, to be effective, all strategies need to be used in a timely fashion as part of a well-defined escalation of intervention if absence increases.

Assessing more complex issues and needs

There will sadly be a small number of pupils and parents who do not respond to the strategies above, but who do not meet the threshold criteria for child protection procedures or the common assessment framework. In these cases it may be helpful to use a format such as that developed by Improving Attendance & Behaviour (a consultancy and training service, http://iabie.com), to make a more holistic, structured assessment of:

    • The nature of the absence over time
    • Any educational or school-based issues
    • Contributory family issues
    • The pupil’s perception (where age appropriate).

Establishing what the key issues are and whether they are predominantly intrinsic to the pupil, family or school will help you to make the most appropriate intervention.

About the author

Barry Archibald has been an independent adviser and trainer since 2011, delivering bespoke training and support to schools, academies and local authorities in attendance, behaviour and pupil wellbeing. Prior to that, Barry spent five years as a Regional Adviser working with the DfE and National Strategies, specialising in school attendance, behaviour and the social and emotional aspects of learning. He can be contacted via email (barchibald154@gmail.com) or via his website (http://iabie.com).

First published on this website in June 2014.

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About Author

Ben Whitney

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

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