What are the main issues for attendance officers today and what strategies
can they use to address these issues? Victoria Franklin has been consulting those on the front line and, in this article, she shares findings and advice about illness-related absence.
- Schools can ask for medical evidence at too early a stage.
- Public Health England provides some useful information that can be shared.
- Follow up non-specific information from parents.
In my role as an education consultant specialising in attendance improvement, I have the opportunity to network widely, both nationally and internationally. It may be of interest for readers to know that many concerns and issues raised are widely shared.
These are the top ten concerns expressed most frequently:
- Challenging absence due to illness.
- Personalised timetables, flexi-schooling and part-time timetables.
- Whole-school strategies versus child-based intervention.
- Understanding national statistics and using these to improve attendance at school.
- Supporting students who join a school part way through the year.
- Primary transition.
- School refusal and mental health.
- Safeguarding and supervision responsibilities.
- Sixth form absence and impact on school judgement.
This is not an exhaustive list and the concerns are not in any order. In the first of a series of articles exploring these, I want to look at a common topic that comes up frequently: tackling absence due to illness.
Challenging absence due to illness
Schools often find this a particularly difficult area to tackle and can get drawn into asking for medical evidence at a very early stage in the process. This leads to high levels of unauthorised absence as a result of either non-compliance by the parent or the unavailability of the type of evidence required.
This originates from a process and action-driven approach linked to escalation; often based on gathering evidence at each stage in order to meet the criteria needed for a final decision. At times, it appears that procedures are outcome-driven rather than real consideration for change being given to each stage of the process.
Stating the facts
A shift in culture is required that starts with taking a whole-school approach to illness, based on fact. National absence data provided by the DfE confirms that illness is the largest reason for absence each year and it is shown that absence rates correlate with illness rates across the country (Public Health England), particularly in the Spring and Summer terms.
Public Heath England publishes very useful information about different types of illness in relation to when absence from school is necessary and this should be shared with the school community so informed choices can be made (see the ‘Fit for School’ leaflet Handout – Example attendance leaflet for parents).
“ It is important that schools share with parents the average number of days students in England are absent ”
This information should also be posted on the school website, together with the link to Public Health England. It is important that schools share with parents the average number of days students in England are absent. Whilst illness does not account for all of the absence, it is the biggest reason for absence. Parents can then use this fact to compare the absence of their own children. This information is available at www.gov.uk/pupil absence data.
“With a robust culture of high expectation and resilience in place, schools need to determine who fits the criteria they are most concerned about”
Promoting a culture of high expectation and resilience
Once parents and students have been given access to factual information about illness and absence, the next step is to promote whole-school resilience in this area. Resilience will be reinforced through other curriculum areas, but it is vital that it is given high priority in addressing attendance matters, particularly in relation to this type of absence.
Attendance administrators are key to this as the first point of contact. Answerphone messages from parents about absence due to illness should be screened for non-specific information and followed up. For example, if a message states ‘feeling unwell’, ‘sick’ or just ‘unwell’, a return call to determine the precise reason is needed. This also gives the message that there is a challenge when a student is absent.
It is also important to determine when the student is expected to return to school and this should be recorded and followed up if they do not return. Prolonged absence spanning over a two-week period (that is, from the end of one week and into the next), should also be followed up to check how the student is doing and the anticipated date of return. This helps to minimise absence due to illness and reinforces the message that the school follows up all absence.
With a robust culture of high expectation and resilience in place, schools need to determine who fits the criteria they are most concerned about. This is often students with frequent absence due to minor illness reasons. Data is an essential tool at this point.
Reports can be generated to look specifically at the number of sessions of absence due to illness over a given time period by students. Alternatively, you might look at the number of incomplete weeks or broken weeks over a timeframe which identifies all students meeting the set criteria. This will give a focus to begin the next stage of the work.
Letters and meetings
It is at this point that letters sent to parents often contain information that relates to concerns about percentage attendance but do not specifically relate this to the reasons given for the absence, such as illness. The expectation is that parents will decode this, understand and act to remedy the situation.
The letters often continue, saying that further absence will not be authorised without medical evidence. The parent may interpret this as: ‘The school does not believe my child is ill and I have to prove it’.
Medical evidence is often not available for minor illness that may not warrant any medical intervention other than self-medication, so the situation becomes stuck.
This issue has been brought into focus following a High Court case in January 2019 (East Sussex County Council v Sussex Central Area Justices). The school had required each absence to be accompanied by medical evidence. However, the court recognised that it was not reasonable to expect the child to be taken to the doctors every time they were unwell.
A more effective way is to include reference to the facts in any initial letter. This might take the form of a leaflet and refer to lessons missed and learning lost and can link absence to attainment or progress rather than percentage attendance.
Where no improvement is noted after a period of monitoring, the parent should be asked to attend a medical action plan meeting to discuss what needs to happen to address the health issues (see the toolkit Form – Medical action plan).
This approach has been proven to be more effective with the parent and student, who then feel that they are believed and then accept that there is a problem that the school are seeking medical help to address. Many of these meetings result in parents and students agreeing that they could attend school more often.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: