Some changes to attendance can be made with relative ease. Others require a much more concerted effort. In this article, Nicola Finch-Turner explains what Michael Drayton Junior School has done to improve attendance, beyond those who are easily reached.
- It is important that children want to come to school.
- Attendance rewards work well with some children, but do not work for everyone.
- For some children, the issues behind poor attendance are complex and need unpicking.
Attendance in schools often feels like a constant battle. You can send letters and offer incentives but still there seems to be a group whose attendance remains an issue throughout their school years. At our five-form entry junior school, we had made big strides in terms of improving attendance but we were still struggling to touch this group.
Our overall aims
At the heart of what we do is providing memorable experiences for our children whilst ensuring that they fulfil their potential. Put simply, we want our children to want to be here. We have invested in developing our curriculum so that not only do we deliver high quality teaching, but we also provide our children with something to remember.
“ Almost 70% of children targeted showed an increase in attendance after Letter 1 ”
As part of this, we have developed our outdoors area. We are fortunate to have great outdoor space and a nearby woodland area and we have worked to maximise this, fully utilising it within our curriculum. We have come to realise that being outdoors inspires our learners and allows them to connect with themselves and each other.
We’ve also given our pupils a voice. Numerous junior leadership committees operate throughout the school so that they can tell us what they enjoy, what is going well and how we might be able to improve. We listen and act on their ideas.
Attendance is high profile – it is talked about. Our children have a weekly competition whereby they can win money that can then be used to buy a class reward. The class in each year group with the highest attendance for the week wins £5; if a class achieves 100%, this rises to £10. The children can then choose how they spend this.
Most classes have now realised that by saving their money, they can get greater rewards and some have even joined forces with other classes to access something more expensive. Chosen prizes have ranged from pizzas and ice creams to inflatables and laser tag trips.
Alongside this, pupils can also achieve certificates and end-of-year plaques and for some, this really works. Our school attendance percentage went from being below national average to above in one year. It had immediate impact. This was four years ago now and it has remained above the national figure ever since. However, still we wanted to do more.
Taking action quickly
As attendance lead within our school, I manage a four-weekly cycle of attendance monitoring. Every four weeks I print off who is below 95% attendance and decide, looking at their reasons, whether or not they should be targeted.
Initially, there is a letter making parents aware that their child’s attendance is below where we want it to be. After that comes another letter, informing the parent that we want to see an improvement in the next four weeks. We found that almost 70% of children targeted showed an increase in attendance after Letter 1 and a further 10% improved by Letter 2.
So what about the remaining 20%? I get our parents in,
quickly. We don’t want our children to fall into the persistent absence
category and so these meetings happen as early as possible. We need to act
quickly to ensure that improvements are made. We do subscribe to our local
authority attendance services and so this can be the next step, but it’s a step we want to avoid.
“ We have had to be flexible in our approach and recognise that a one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work ”
Unpicking the reasons
During the meetings with parents, we unpick the reasons. This has proved to be invaluable. Not only does it give us a greater insight into the obstacles that our families face, but it also allows us to break down barriers. Whilst we put the message across that attendance matters, we also want to say to our parents that we want what’s best for their children and we want to help.
During these conversations, we have discovered a range of issues. We’ve realised that some parents just don’t realise how much time their children have off, they aren’t aware of how much the odd day here and there accumulates and, for some, the meetings can be quite an eye opener.
We’ve realised that some of our children have different anxieties or issues and we have been able to signal them in the right direction. For some, this has been through one-off conversations; for others we have had to invest more time.
Links with pupil premium
Many of our 20% are also on the pupil premium register and the underlying issues behind their attendance are far more complex. Because of this, we have had to be flexible in our approach and recognise that a one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work.
Rewards and letters will motivate some, but certainly not all. For the rest, our strategy has been about unearthing the reasons and offering support. We have put into place numerous individualised strategies and have used pupil premium to fund this. Whilst it has meant investing more time, the commitment has reaped rewards, not only in terms of improved attendance but most importantly, in terms of improving the school life of our children.
From organising temporary bus passes to distributing food vouchers, contributing to out-of-school school clubs to organising outdoor learning sessions, we have had to adopt a very individualised approach.
A response to an individual
Take one of our pupils as an example. He has had poor attendance throughout his time at our school and was also beginning to fall into a pattern of poor behaviour. After conversations with him and his mum, we realised that he had extremely low self-esteem and a negative outlook towards himself and his school life.
Mum was also struggling financially and did not currently have transport. We talked about different support we could offer, including financial support towards out-of-school clubs and counselling sessions. What the pupil said he wanted was the opportunity to talk. He had enjoyed the conversation and felt that it was his opportunity to be understood. We also arranged a bus pass to help with transport to school each day. Within a term, his attendance has risen by 12%. There’s still room for improvement but it’s a huge step in the right direction.
We realise, of course, that the challenges will continue, but we do feel we have made great leaps forward in addressing the attendance of these pupils. Supporting our families has become another facet of my role as attendance lead and the strengthened partnership has led to increased percentages and happier children. As I said at the beginning, we want our children to want to be here – but we also want our parents to want to send them.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
Nicola Finch-Turner has been in leadership for 10 years and is currently working as a deputy headteacher in a five-form entry junior school. She is passionate about ensuring that all children fulfil their potential and strives to secure the best possible outcomes for her pupils. As attendance lead, she recognises that she has a pivotal role in this and has worked to refine systems and remove barriers to maximise attendance.