Managing behaviour and attendance: Ofsted research

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Ofsted has now published its latest research into managing behaviour, attendance and punctuality. In this article, Matt Bromley outlines some of the key messages in the report and what teachers and school leaders had to say.

Summary

  • Punctuality should be a desired behaviour emphasised repeatedly during the school day.
  • What is most important is what pupils and staff actually do, rather than what policies say they do.
  • Improving transition arrangements can get pupils with attendance problems off to a good start.

In the 2014 report, ‘Below the Radar’, Ofsted found that only a third of teachers felt their school’s attendance and behaviour policies were being applied consistently. Teachers said that this inconsistency, together with a lack of support from senior leaders, undermined their efforts to effectively manage attendance and behaviour.

Five years on, Ofsted decided to update what it knows about managing challenging behaviour in schools, including attendance and punctuality, looking not just at low-level disruption as it did in 2014, but at more challenging forms of misbehaviour too.

Consistency

Compared with ‘Below the Radar’, Ofsted’s latest research found some positive developments. For instance, it found that teachers and leaders better understood the importance of consistency in the implementation of behaviour policies. Most schools in the study favoured whole-school behaviour management approaches in which a set of consistent routines are put into practice and rigorously and consistently applied.

Staff, particularly in secondary schools, emphasised the value of teaching desired behaviours and making them routine. This is especially the case for those behaviours that are repeated regularly throughout the school day and that ensure the safe movement of pupils around the school, the smooth running of lessons and the minimum loss of learning time to low-level disruption. Chief among these routines is punctuality.

Ofsted concluded that, when pupils and staff have a shared understanding of the expectations for these common behaviours – crucially, that late means late – and both staff and pupils follow established routines, overall consistency is easier to achieve.

Making a habit of good behaviours

Routines such as being punctual to lessons need to be explicitly taught to pupils and modelled by all staff in a school. Consistency and clarity in understanding and implementing an attendance and behaviour policy have long been linked to lower levels of exclusions and good attendance. High levels of exclusions and poor attendance can result from staff and pupils not having a clear understanding of the policy or applying it inconsistently.

Headteachers and teachers told Ofsted inspectors that establishing clear routines was not just about expecting consistent standards of behaviour, although this is of great importance. It was also about the use of daily routines to create an environment in which learning can take place.

Consistency should be the aim, with leaders supporting teachers to achieve this. This will not only lead to better behaviour overall, allowing all pupils an education free of disruption, but it promotes fairness and avoids discriminatory practices.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

A whole-school approach to behaviour and attendance is, Ofsted says, much more than a set of policies or documents; it is about what everyone in the school does, how they behave, and what expectations are set and taught. It is also about the values and ethos of the school. Strong values underpin good behaviour.

In the best schools, the values underpinning the attendance and behaviour management policy are clear and detailed.  Staff and pupils across the school know what the values are. In these schools, pupils know that good attendance and behaviour prepares them well for their future lives.

One way to improve attendance is to make a direct link between attendance and educational outcomes and between educational outcomes and later success in life and work. Such a strategy can encourage pupils and their parents to appreciate the longer-term impact of absenteeism on their life chances and potential earnings.

In the best schools, leaders and teachers appreciate the need to build and maintain positive relationships with all pupils to ensure ongoing good attendance and behaviour. Through good relationships, staff are more able to spot potential attendance concerns or behaviours that are out of character and may lead to absences and so can take preventative action.

The debate around zero tolerance

There’s lots of debate via social media at the moment about whether or not zero-tolerance approaches to absenteeism and poor behaviour are appropriate.  One of the issues is that policies described as ‘zero tolerance’ mean different things in different contexts.

Rather than talking about zero tolerance, the teachers and leaders in the Ofsted study spoke about the different types of behaviours they wanted to see in their pupils, as follows.

  1. Foundational behaviours, such as attending and being punctual to school and to lessons.
  2. Pupils showing positive attitudes to learning, such as:
    • making a strong effort
    • making a positive contribution in class
    • engaging in their learning
    • completing homework to a high standard.
  3. Social behaviours, such as the ways in which pupils interact

These three types of behaviours are reflected in the new education inspection framework (EIF) under Behaviour and attitudes. In the framework, Ofsted states that, amongst other things, in order to be judged ‘Good’, the following standard needs to be reached:

‘Pupils have high attendance, come to school on time and are punctual to lessons. When this is not the case, the school takes appropriate, swift and effective action.’

Of course, the opposite of zero tolerance is a potentially harmful leniency.  For example, some schools, in seeking to re-engage with a persistent absentee, may agree a staggered return to school and/or a part-time timetable. Such strategies need to be carefully thought through because they can send a signal that attending school is optional and that missing some days and lessons is permitted. 

The DfE guidance on part-time timetables is clear:

‘All pupils of compulsory school age are entitled to a full-time education. In very exceptional circumstances there may be a need for a temporary part-time timetable to meet a pupil’s individual needs. For example, where a medical condition prevents a pupil from attending full-time education and a part-time timetable is considered as part of a re-integration package. A part-time timetable must not be treated as a long-term solution. In agreeing to a part-time timetable a school has agreed to a pupil being absent from school for part of the week or day and therefore must record it as authorised absence.’

Early identification and transition

Leaders interviewed as part of the Ofsted study talked about the value of managing transitions to make them as smooth as possible. For some pupils, going from a relatively small primary community, where you’re known by everyone and where you have a close relationship with a small number of teachers, to a much larger secondary school with several teachers will be particularly challenging and can lead to instances of absenteeism.

The schools in the Ofsted study felt that it was important to identify pupils who were particularly at risk of absenteeism before they started secondary school so that they could provide appropriate support and prepare them for ‘big school’. Specific plans could then be put in place to minimise the risk of these children being absent, late to school and lessons, and/or displaying challenging behaviour after transition.

There was agreement amongst the schools in the study that early identification should not result in secondary schools discouraging admission under the guise that the child ‘would not fit in here’. In the schools that had successfully improved transition arrangements, individual support plans or an extended period of transition were two of their solutions.

Improving transition practice

Some secondary schools said they had also had success when starting work with pupils in Year 5 or had run summer schools or literacy and numeracy catch-up sessions in Year 7 for pupils who were struggling at the end of primary school. Leaders explained that this was to prevent pupils falling further behind, which leads to absenteeism and displays of challenging behaviour as pupils struggle to access the curriculum. 

In the schools that had improved transition, there was also effective training for all staff which included training for school leaders and those with pastoral responsibilities. These schools achieved consistency through regular training, mentoring and induction of new teachers. Many teachers also valued informal discussions with school leaders alongside clear monitoring systems and policies.

Ofsted’s report concludes that developing a school culture of high expectations is key and that all staff in a school must apply a consistent approach to managing attendance and punctuality.

Further information

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership, including as a headteacher. He is a consultant, speaker, and trainer, and the author of numerous best-selling books for teachers. You can find out more about Matt at
www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley

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About Author

Matt Bromley

Matt Bromley is an experienced education writer, consultant, speaker and trainer. In a leadership career of more than 15 years, he was Group Director of a large FE college and multi-academy trust, acting Headteacher of one of the top five most improved schools in England, Deputy Headteacher of a small rural school, and Assistant Headteacher of a large inner-city school. He speaks regularly at conferences and is a successful author of several best-selling books. You can find out more at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley email: matt@bromleyeducation.co.uk

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