Assal Ruse is glowing with pride as she tells me that Waldegrave School in Richmond-upon-Thames, south-west London, has just achieved its best ever attendance figures. This goes along with excellent GCSE results, further proof that the two go hand-in-hand. However, she is taking the 97.03% attendance figure as her next target to beat! Perhaps this attitude is the secret of her success.
Assal describes herself as a ‘late starter’, becoming an NQT secondary science teacher in 2001. Before she became Assistant Headteacher and Director of Achievement, among her previous roles were head of year and head of science, covering both pastoral and curriculum. Her current role includes, among other things, strategic use of data, responsibility for behaviour and reward is, attendance and punctuality, child protection and safeguarding.
Assal tells me that the school’s attendance policy ‘leads itself because of a whole-school effort’, although it is clear that this has come about only as the result of a great deal of work. She took on responsibility for attendance in 2009 and says her passion for it is something of a joke to her colleagues. What first inspired her was seeing a Year 11 student habitually arriving at the end of a lesson. This made her wonder what would happen if that student turned up equally late for a subject for which there was just one lesson a week? She is driven by the belief that ‘unless a student is in school, we can’t offer them educational and pastoral support’.
Her first move was to tackle punctuality by introducing a system of same-day detentions at break. The detentions are overseen by heads of house/year and the senior leadership team (SLT), sending a clear signal about the seriousness with which punctuality is taken. When this system first started, the room was packed every break, whereas now there is ‘hardly anyone there’. This initiative had an immediate impact, although she reckons it took about two terms for the message to really sink in that it was here to stay.
Next, lesson truancy was addressed. Missing a lesson meant an automatic internal exclusion in a room dedicated to this, or an after-school detention supervised by a member of the SLT, the latter proving more of a deterrent.
Waldegrave has very much made its own systems, processes and procedures – indeed, Assal strongly believes in taking control and doing things in-house wherever possible. The school uses SIMS and borough absence returns in terms of data – plus its own tailor-made spreadsheet that provides a customised analysis.
This DIY approach also means not depending on other agencies, but instead making sure that the school makes things happen that are deemed important. Assal admits that she finds cases that are referred to CAMHs difficult because she feels her hands are tied and it is hard to follow up. She particularly struggles with the idea of giving students reduced timetables, as in her experience it can lead to them refusing to come into school at all and missing out on many opportunities as a result. Needless to say, she has made her concerns known at borough level.
Assal is full of praise for the support that she receives inside the school. In 2013 the school appointed its own educational welfare officer, Nicola Hogan-Araujo (also the school’s student services manager). Nic monitors attendance on a daily basis and arranges meetings with parents, either delegating them to pastoral leaders or meeting them herself. She is also (to Assal’s knowledge) the first support staff member in the country ever to complete the Middle Leadership Development Programme (MLDP) course on leadership, as Assal is a strong believer that leadership is needed in this area.
This support is invaluable in following up consistently on absence and lateness. Nic updates the weekly monitoring of persistent absentees and Carol Nutting, a member of the student services team, produces the daily ‘hot list’. These are distributed to pastoral leaders every day. There is a clear protocol outlining what action should be taken in each case, often on the day itself ( see the flowchart online). Assal herself follows up to make sure that this is done.
Another step that was taken a few years ago was to rework the role of tutor and the job specification of head of house/year to ensure clear accountability for attendance and punctuality – and Assal isn’t afraid to hold colleagues to task, at the same time as offering unstinted support. This has been crucial in making sure that all members of staff understand that attendance and punctuality are very much their business.
Working with parents
As Assal says, many attendance issues come down to parenting problems. She has had parents tell her that they cannot wake their child. She has even received angry letters in response to actions taken by the school to challenge lateness and punctuality. However, she says that she has never felt at risk because she knows that ‘her conscience is clear’.
When I ask Assal how she would sum up the school’s philosophy on attendance, she replies, ‘Whatever it takes’. This has on occasion included legal meetings and even legal action.
It is not all stick at Waldegrave, however, and the school celebrates excellence in this area as in many others. The importance of attendance and punctuality are regularly explained to parents via letters outlining the negative impact on GCSE results of missing just a few sessions. Inside the school, Assal has led assemblies giving the same message. She also regularly reminds students that their attendance record is not only a legal requirement, but one that colleges ask to see when considering applications. The weekly school newsletter also reports the tutor groups that have performed best in attendance and punctuality, keeping the topic prominent.
The house system in the school is also used to good effect. Once a week tutors are emailed a list showing the class and house with the best attendance figures. Everyone in the best class gains a house point too. There is also an attendance raffle. Assal picks a time-span (say, a month) to avoid discouraging anyone who has missed a day already. All students with 100% attendance within that period are eligible for the raffle and five names from each house are put forward. Prizes are valued by the students and might include a £10.00 voucher, for example.
Waldegrave is an outstanding school and does not allow its academy status to stop it from sharing its good practice outside the school.
Assal sees attendance and punctuality as life skills, rather than a choice. According to her, they define who you are in terms of your morals and your work ethic. She also passionately believes that the most vulnerable students of all need to be in school. It is not uncommon for her to have a student sitting with her in her office, the rationale being that at least they are in school and are taking a step towards participating in lessons. The fact that her room is papered with thank you cards and moving letters from students describing the impact she has had on their lives is perhaps the best testimony to the way in which a passion for attendance and punctuality can change lives.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice::
- Flowchart - Waldegrave School procedure for dealing with attendance and punctuality29.03 KB
- Policy - Waldegrave Attendance and Punctuality Policy48 KB
First published on this website in March 2014.