Steve Baker argues that raising the persistent absence threshold to under 90% has its compensations.
- Setting the bar high prepares children for the requirements of adult life.
- The ‘target’ culture has improved dialogue between schools and parents about the attendance issue.
- Analysis of data has helped schools identify trends and offer effective support where needed.
For the purposes of this debate I have agreed to argue in favour of the new threshold of 90% for the identification of pupils as persistent absentees, explaining why this development is both useful and necessary.
This venture is fraught with danger.
Firstly, I am taking the unpopular side of the argument and I may alienate hard-pressed school leaders. Secondly, I am opposed in this context by Ben Whitney, who has forgotten more than I will ever know about school attendance.
How is your attendance?
However, first things first: 90% attendance in your job would get you the sack. No employee taking half a day off a week would be tolerated.
Ben is absolutely right; 38 sessions is a lot of absence. We must prepare children for adult life and so taking a clear and robust approach to the necessity of excellent attendance arguably teaches them a valuable lesson.
Ben criticises the ‘target’ culture but the focus provided by the National Strategies in the early years of this century really did raise the bar and addressing attendance, where it was done well, led to addressing all sorts of issues around school culture, engaging curricula and inclusive teaching. Setting targets and holding schools to account can be a profitable exercise for all concerned if it is done with sensitivity and common sense.
One long absence
Ben is accurate in his point about one long absence putting a pupil in the persistent absence (PA) category but I disagree that this will lead to unnecessary interventions. Most schools are sufficiently savvy in their use of data that they can filter out the pupils with broken legs or those suffering other circumstances that do not require the carrots and sticks used to re-engage the disaffected. Schools can easily demonstrate how much of their PA does not reflect poor attitudes to learning.
The target culture has changed the conversation with parents about attendance in a good way. Teaching is a difficult job that is made a little easier if pupils are present week in and week out. Many parents now think twice about taking their children out of school for trivial reasons and that has to be a good thing.
Every pupil is, of course, an individual, but the analysis of data that was introduced and supported by the National Strategies in many schools helped them to identify patterns and trends and therefore to commission appropriate support more effectively. Setting the bar at 90% should in fact help schools pick up early warning signs. I must be honest though and admit the difficulty I see, which is that pulling more pupils into the category creates more work for somebody, at a time when budgets are stretched to breaking point and Education Welfare Services are reducing.
When is 90% to be celebrated?
I agree with Ben that for some pupils, such as those with mental health issues or those who are young carers, 90% attendance is an achievement to be celebrated. That is true. For so many of our young people life is a struggle and they are to be applauded for facing up to their challenges as they do. However, the fact that such a pupil’s attendance level is now categorised as PA does not always mean that he/she should be penalised.
When a pupil works their socks off and achieves their potential at GCSE, those staff who know the pupil will celebrate that fact, whether or not they have achieved 5 A* – C. It is no different with attendance. Just because Brendan’s attendance at 90% (or 89% for that matter) means he is technically PA does not mean that his achievement in attending at that level, despite the level of domestic violence in his home, cannot be celebrated by those staff who work with him.
I am more persuaded by the point that Ben makes about deprivation. In this sense it is indeed not a level playing field. Pupils from poorer homes eat less healthy food, live in worse housing and consequently fall ill more often; that is undeniable. However, I do take issue with Ben’s conclusion that this not about children and families and is all about bashing schools instead.
When we look at the cost to the nation of the NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) cohort, and the continuing litany of safeguarding scandals, it is not surprising that governments of all shades are determined to keep children in school. The economic price of their failure to do so, leading to drug and alcohol dependency, homelessness and other tragic outcomes, presents our political leaders with an economic as well as a moral imperative to act. The fragmentation of the school system and the preoccupation of the DfE and Ofsted in their tussle with each other has militated against the clarity of these messages.
So there we are. I have done my best to present the case against the motion. It was not straightforward, but it’s a reminder that when government, schools and local authorities came together to focus hard on the attendance issue, an awful lot of good came out of it. Sadly, in this fractured landscape, such a joined-up approach is hard to achieve.
About the author
Steve Baker, formerly a teacher for 17 years, is now a freelance behaviour and attendance consultant based in West Yorkshire. He works with leadership teams on their strategic planning, gives operational advice to frontline staff and works in classrooms to give developmental feedback to staff, transforming their behaviour leadership. In addition, Steve delivers courses for schools and colleges, speaks at conferences, writes for Optimus and supports local authorities with schools causing concern. He can be contacted via his website, where you can also read his blog www.stevebakereducation.co.uk