There was no blueprint for the Covid-19 situation and local authorities have Managed it differently. However, there are some common themes and approaches that attendance officers should be aware of. Victoria Franklin talks us through the emerging picture for local authority management of attendance post-lockdown.
- During the early months of the crisis, prosecutions for non-attendance were suspended.
- Flexibility was needed as schools began to open once again.
- New trends are emerging, such as an increase in elective home education.
What is the experience of local authority staff working in the area of school attendance since schools returned in September? Reports from key personnel suggest that, despite it being a somewhat varied picture with different approaches being taken to manage all aspects of attendance, there do appear to be some common elements.
“It was thought vital to link the role of attendance work to supporting safeguarding work with children”
In order to understand the context local authorities (LAs) are operating in with relation to school attendance, it is important to spend a few moments considering the role of LAs before Covid-19. In many LAs, the management of school attendance has been separated into statutory and non-statutory work, with the latter often being undertaken by an early intervention team model and the former referred to as ‘core services’.
For ease of definition, ‘core services’ include:
- legal work, such as prosecutions
- penalty notices
- school attendance orders
- children missing education
- elective home education
- child employment and licensing.
During the forced closure of schools, it was this area of attendance management that saw the most dramatic changes as compulsory attendance at school was temporarily collapsed through the Covid-19 Bill.
Prosecutions for non-attendance cases and penalty notice referrals were suspended as courts did not sit. In some LAs, staff from these teams were redeployed to adult social care to check in with vulnerable adults or to early intervention teams to support work with a focus on vulnerable children. During school closure, local authorities were pivotal in disseminating and implementing government guidance.
“Planning, keeping all stakeholders regularly informed and flexibility appeared to be key to managing a fast-moving service”
Planning for the re-opening of schools
Attendance colleagues reported different practices in relation to the opening of schools. Some LAs included attendance staff in their ‘return plans’ and other attendance teams were not made aware of what their future role would look like.
Nationally, there was a focus on local authorities supporting government arrangements to ensure schools opened successfully and children returned fully to school. Common approaches adopting these key principles were evident in best practice cases where flexibility was still incorporated. In one LA, the Education Welfare Service, the admissions team and the attendance strategy manager provided support to focus on transition and admissions to avoid pupils becoming CME (children missing education).
Another principle adopted by one local authority was to recognise that this was about all families and children across the city and to offer universal support to all schools, regardless of status, including academy and free schools. This was provided through documentation, briefing sessions for headteachers and attendance staff, school attendance network meetings and drop-ins. It was thought vital to link the role of attendance work to supporting safeguarding work with children.
Several LAs adopted a principle of allowing for a period of settling back into school before any formal action for non-attendance was considered. In some examples, this spanned the whole of the first term. Planning, keeping all stakeholders regularly informed and flexibility appeared to be key to managing a fast-moving service.
Impact findings on key areas of statutory work
For this article, professional views and accounts were collated to get a picture of local authority life for attendance colleagues. Here is a sample shared under the statutory duties these colleagues perform.
Children missing education
Some LAs reported that the number of referrals are the same as they would have been without a pandemic; others reported that families were prevented from travelling back to the UK by restrictions inside the country they visited. There are examples of LAs writing addendums to guidance to ensure children were not removed from roll in these circumstances if parents had confirmed they intended to return to the UK.
An emerging area of concern is children prevented from returning to school by parents who are trying to manage either their own, the child’s or a sibling’s health condition. Although ‘shielding’ has ceased, they are not confident about a return to school. This is a particularly difficult scenario to manage for headteachers and attendance professionals who are being asked to make decisions with a remit of mandatory school attendance and Public Health guidance versus a real dilemma for parents.
“One LA is reviewing its elective home education pathway to further support parents who may be making this choice”
Elective home education and flexi-schooling
Parents participated in a form of non-elective home education during school closure and the trend to home educate had increased before the pandemic. Since school attendance once again became mandatory, LAs report a further increase in elective home education. One local authority provided information relating to 60 new referrals in the first two weeks of term and another 49 new cases. Often the reasons cited for the decision were anxiety about Covid-19 and the lack of confidence in schools to keep children safe.
As a result, one LA is reviewing its elective home education pathway to further support parents who may be making this choice for these reasons. Requests for advice from schools regarding flexi-schooling have also increased, with parents citing the advantages that they feel a combination of school and home learning offers.
Penalty notices and prosecutions: Court-related work
Deciding on when the right time is to restart enforcement action has been a difficult one for local authorities. Cases listed before and during the pandemic and the closing down of the court process have been withdrawn on the premise that this was in the best interest of the parents given the circumstances of Covid-19 and that the case had been ‘timed out’ of the legal process.
Although courts have re-opened and are listing hearings for non-attendance cases, these are predominantly in relation to unauthorised holiday absence from before school closure. Referrals for penalty notices also relate predominantly to unauthorised holiday absence.
The overwhelming view from LAs is that any case of non-attendance where formal procedures have been invoked since school return, need to be handled sensitively. There needs to be an opportunity for parents and children to be able to address the emotional and learning impact of school closure and to receive support from appropriate services to find a solution as part of the process.
One local authority is using the DfE daily return to identify and track children who are disproportionately being listed as absent from school; for example, SEND pupils. Clearly LAs, along with all professionals in the attendance world, are adapting and changing their approach as required by events that are still ongoing. This is particularly true where local authority areas are subject to local restrictions and lockdowns.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: