Separating attendance and absence management

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For some schools, the past year has enabled greater insight into the distinctions between attendance and absence management. Victoria Franklin looks at the differences and what we have learnt about them since March 2020.

Summary

  • There has been an increased requirement for trust between schools and families that has impacted on attendance management.
  • Attendance officers have been involved in monitoring online engagement as well as physical attendance.
  • Dividing absences into Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 has provided some interesting insights.

The matter of school attendance has held a prominent role across all media platforms this academic year as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to be felt in all areas of our lives. This level of prominence and public coverage of school attendance had not been seen since the Isle of Wight Council v Platt case heard in the Supreme Court in 2017 and Baroness Hale’s subsequent ruling on the meaning of ‘regular attendance at school’.

The importance and benefits of attending school have become more overt this year with social and emotional issues as well as educational relevance and lifelong impact being discussed nationally by many organisations, including those not linked directly to education. This included the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health who called on the government to set up a return-to-school plan in readiness for the academic year, such was their concern about prolonged absence.

Parents and students have also been able to voice their views about attending school more publicly through shared media platforms. We have heard what attending school means to them and the overwhelming support for attendance at school once they re-opened to all has been evidenced in attendance figures published regularly by the DfE.

There are, of course, parents and children who have used this year’s experience to reconsider how they receive an education and have opted to continue to home school, citing the reduction in stress and anxiety previously experienced by their child about school life as a factor for deciding this.

Children’s education has consistently been a national priority and, wherever possible, education settings have remained open and identified groups of children expected to attend when all could not. With attendance at school once again mandatory for all from the start of the academic year, a whole new area of attendance and absence management needed to be in place and required careful administration. Followed, of course by another period of lockdown, further complicating matters.

“This opportunity for in-depth dialogue and engagement with parents and children should be embedded in future attendance management policy”

Attendance management

It is useful to define the meaning of attendance management and it has become increasingly important to differentiate this from absence management. It can be likened to safeguarding and child protection with attendance management used to describe the whole approach to promote and secure regular attendance. Absence management is an intrinsic part of this, but with specific targeted procedures and interventions where regular attendance is not in evidence.

Schools and school staff have become even more proficient at promoting attendance and the legacy of having to plan in detail for the school return more robustly than in previous years aided this. In previous editions of Attendance Matters, we have shared return-to-school action plans that have made a difference.

A question of trust

One of the key factors in promoting attendance from inside the school to the school community has been the level of trust placed by the parents in school staff and the reassurance that school personnel have been able to offer, not only about school safety but in showing consideration for the whole family’s welfare.

This approach deepened during this year and schools went above and beyond to ensure families had their basic needs met. This has been a catalyst for improved attendance in some schools and improved working relationships.

This opportunity for in-depth dialogue and engagement with parents and children should be embedded in future attendance management policy – the voice of the parent/child should not be lost. When working with schools to improve attendance, there is often a ‘Eureka’ moment when I ask them: ‘Why do children attend this school?’

They often have not asked this question before but focused instead on why they do not.

Engagement

School attendance staff have embraced this work in addition to routine tracking and monitoring of attendance of all students across their school. A new dimension to this has been the link between attendance and engagement in remote learning where physical attendance has not been possible.

Schools have developed ways to record and monitor engagement and the attendance team are often key to this, making strong links between engagement in online learning and safeguarding, as they would with physical attendance. This mixture of online learning/engagement and physical presence in school opens up possibilities for future education delivery in very specific scenarios. 

Collaboration

Attendance has not only been the remit of schools and school staff this year but also that of local authority social work staff and voluntary organisations too. This collaborative approach to raising the profile of the importance and benefits of school attendance must be sustained in the best interests of children and particularly those children who are most disadvantaged and at risk.

Professional associations supporting colleagues in attendance management have worked increasingly collaboratively with the DfE around policy and practice and this has created a shared understanding of the issues. As a result, this has led to constructive dialogue and considerations. I believe there is a case for attendance management to be considered as part of a national strategy going forward.

You can see an example of collaborative work developed this year by the Worcestershire Children First team in the toolkit FormBack-to-school project plan.

Absence management

The role of absence management has widened significantly this year with increasing demand on attendance administrators/officers to complete daily returns to the DfE in relation to both child and staff absence linked to Covid-19. These changes brought absence management into sharp focus as, initially, this area of work appeared to be thrown into chaos when the impact of Covid-19 absence was observed.

In addition, the DfE has collected data for all codes from January this year and not just the previously published absence codes. This raises the profile and importance of recording, especially for students not physically present at school as in the ‘B’/’D’ codes.

Schools have worked hard to set up efficient and effective procedures to follow up and deal with absence, but an under-developed area is often found in the analysis of reason for absence and targeted support in specific areas as a result.

By dividing absence into Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 absence, different targeted approaches have become possible with different strategies applied. A focus on non-Covid-19 absence has revealed some interesting findings for some school settings. For example, a large reduction in absence due to unauthorised holiday in Terms 1 and 2 led to attendance levels in one primary school being above 97% and other schools report less absence due to minor illness and medical appointments.

What is important here is that schools are noticing the detail of this and the impact that different types of absence can have. Absence management can often be about addressing cases below a certain percentage attendance without a deeper analysis of the reasons. Having to spend time separating Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 absence reasons and studying impact has given deeper understanding of what useful intelligence this reason for absence data holds.

We should be mindful that absence recording has a subjective bias but that by continuing to undertake this analysis, we will increase our understanding of why children are reported to be not in school.

Toolkit

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

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About Author

Victoria Franklin

Victoria Franklin is a qualified social worker with more than 25 years’ experience working in education settings. She is currently a senior education welfare consultant working across all phases of education. Victoria is the President of the National Association of Support Workers in Education (NASWE) and delivers national training on a wide range of attendance matters. Victoriafranklin4@virginmedia.com

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