For Emma Meadus, headteacher at Coppice Valley Primary school, the past two years have proved hugely challenging, particularly when it comes to attendance. In this article she considers the lessons learned in lockdown and the government support that’s needed.
- A more coherent strategy is needed across the country.
- Family services need to be available to work more closely with schools.
- The opportunity to work on relationships is a key element to supporting the most vulnerable.
In recent months, the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has formed a new Attendance Alliance pledging to improve school attendance, particularly persistent absence. Data collected by government showed that the number of pupils persistently absent increased to 501,642 in secondary schools in autumn 2020, compared with 454,167 in 2019, not including non-attendance in Covid-19 circumstances.
The pandemic has created a whole new world of attendance management challenges. The Ofsted short report, Securing Good Attendance and Tackling Persistent Absence, issued in February 2022, details concern about the number of pupils with previously persistent absence who have been using bogus Covid-19-related excuses for school absence.
In a press release on 9 December 2021, Mr Zahawi said:
“Where children aren’t in school without good reason or don’t want to be in school, something has gone substantially wrong and needs fixing. This new Attendance Alliance includes the people with the power to do just that. They will be working over the coming months to make sure everyone working on the ground with children, as a teacher, football coach, mental health worker or in any other role, has the tools and resources they need to break down barriers to children attending school.”
I am anxious to find out what these tools and resources are that the Attendance Alliance is going to provide.
I know what I need in my context – more people doing the work around school attendance. School leaders, especially of small schools, like myself, know the pressure of juggling budgets for attendance management. We know that the rigorous application of attendance policies is crucial to success, but we also know that this takes manpower – staff who can chase up absence, do home visits and transport children to and from school.
When budgets demand that these roles are filled by existing school staff who are already shouldering many responsibilities, such as headteachers and school secretaries, the effect is diluted. We also know that schools can’t do this work on our own. We need children and families’ services to be working with us, but securing this support is too difficult to access as it is. With school attendance, families must consent to children and families’ service involvement. Without it, it falls back to schools to bear the burden alone.
In such circumstances, the relentless pursuit of good school attendance with persistently absent families can cause relationships to get worn down. Victimisation and bullying are terms thrown back at school leaders by families as we go about the work of trying to secure better attendance. It’s in these situations that I feel very isolated and want more support from government and local services. I really hope the Attendance Alliance gives us something concrete and substantial that makes an actual difference.
Lack of consistency
Something that those of us working on the front lines in attendance know all too well and has recently been acknowledged by government, is the radically different approach to absence sanctions across the country. Some local authorities issued no fines in 2020–21, while others issued over 1500. The Attendance Alliance is proposing new standards that will make sure interventions such as fines are always used when all other options have been explored.
Consistency and rigour in the pursuit of good attendance with persistently absent families are absolutely vital. Too many times, pupils fall through the cracks in the system when fines are not issued or police cautions not followed up, allowing persistent absence patterns to go on and on.
As things currently stand with what resources I do have, I know the best tool available in my attendance toolkit is the good, strong relationships we have with families. I rely on the trust we have built up and the understanding of the importance of education we have grown in our families, to inspire good attendance.
The role of relationships
The power of genuine, caring relationships to improve attendance was proven during the pandemic. Providing vulnerable children with care during the lockdowns helped to make ongoing attendance improvements for some persistently absent families. Getting vulnerable children who don’t attend school when it’s compulsory to attend in a lockdown when attendance was not mandatory was a task in itself!
We weren’t successful with all pupils, but we did get most to attend with a combination of gentle pressure and blatant bribery. We found ourselves in a position of having the staff capacity to do home visits (garden visits as they were), to make daily calls and generally to put the long hours into building up the trust and the good case for coming to school. Treats like baking each day, fish and chips and extended playtimes were enough to lure in some reluctant attenders.
Once we had them in, we found that we could work more intensely on relationships with our emotionally based school-avoidant children. It quickly became apparent how many children preferred the smaller group sizes in school and the more personalised and attentive approaches they got from staff.
Seeking out the source
With a more relaxed environment, we were able to work on the root causes of their absence, dedicating more one-to-one time to their learning or nurture. For some, it was about catch-up work to improve their confidence in class. For others, it was about their social skills and a feeling they had of not belonging, of not having friends or being liked.
Building closer relationships with staff and other pupils, cementing better friendships and generally improving their confidence in the school building made a significant difference and their attendance now continues to improve. In readiness for school reopening to all, we created simple wellbeing plans (see the Toolkit) with these pupils to maintain their high levels of wellbeing. We continue to use these now to support pupils who are anxious about school.
In the longer term
When school resumed, this momentum and success was something I didn’t want to lose. I knew I would not have the staff capacity to put the same hours into attendance that we’d had during lockdown. Instead, I turned to our texting system, using it to send out regular positive messages (see the Toolkit) to families to celebrate their attendance improvements.
This has been successful for some of our families, particularly when backed up at school with discrete congratulations shared with the pupil themselves; not in a big way that may cause embarrassment but just a small, quiet word to say how proud we are. Text messaging parents is catching the government’s attention too. The DfE has recently re-published The Behaviour Insights Team’s guidance for schools, Increasing attendance with parent messages, in partnership with Bristol City Council.
Our lockdown attendance improvement work showed me what could be done with the right resources – the people and the time to work with families in constructive and consistent ways. My hope is that the Attendance Alliance facilitates this kind of crucial work in school.
- Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence, Ofsted, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3txyxcV
- Increasing attendance with parent messages, DfE: https://bit.ly/3jdJGKW
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice: