The school attendance clinic

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Using a school attendance clinic can be a positive method of engaging with parents and carers. Before the restrictions on face-to-face meetings, these were a common part of many schools’ practice. Now it’s time to look at this strategy again, writes Sara Griffiths.

Summary

  • Avoid sending automatically generated letters, and select your parents carefully.
  • Consider who else may need to be present to ensure that conversations aren’t repeated or information omitted.
  • Keep clear records of your meetings as these can help if further action is needed, and evidence the work you have done.

Remember attendance clinics? Many of us used these regularly before the pandemic. For those who haven’t used them, or need a reminder, traditionally they have been used to call parents and carers into school when there has either been limited or no response to contact, or discussions have not resulted in any improvement in attendance. In the formal school processes, they often sit between the standard letter with a reminder of attendance rates and the first legal warning.

The clinics usually run on a specific day, using a series of timed slots. They involve shorter discussions and are slightly less formal than a legal meeting. Some schools run these themselves, others use a local authority (LA) education welfare officer (EWO) or a private agency.

The meeting agrees actions on both sides and is formally recorded. A lot of schools like clinics because they add a level of formality to the interaction and provide additional evidence if the case needs to proceed to legal action.

A good option?

With all that parents, children and young people have been through, and the difficulties they have faced, are clinics still an appropriate tool?

They can be a great way of engaging families to get the information you need but should be used in a much more nuanced way than previously. Sending an automatically generated letter when a child’s attendance hits a specific percentage threshold is likely to create anxiety and resistance even if you have tried hard to contact the parents already. Clinics may take more time to set up than previously, but are much more likely to have a positive impact.

Putting aside regular days or half days to hold these meetings ensures that they happen. However, they should never replace the attendance roles and responsibilities other people have in school, which will form an integral part of your overall attendance management process.

Parental engagement is key to improving attendance, and clinics should be just one of the many ways you try to do this. How can they be used to achieve the best results?

Getting it right

Think of a different name. ‘School attendance clinic’ or ‘surgery’ has medical connotations and doesn’t always encourage parents to engage. A title like ‘Attendance success’, ‘School attendance matters’, or ‘Helping your child succeed’ meeting will build on parents’ aspirations for their child. Almost without exception, parents want their children to be the best they can be and are happy to talk about how they can help make that happen.

Select parents carefully. Don’t ask an administrator to generate invitations when attendance hits a certain percentage. Consider who has been difficult to engage when you have your in-house pastoral attendance discussions and for whom these meetings might be most helpful.

Make sure a named person has responsibility for making the decision about who is invited, so that invitations are not sent inappropriately. Don’t wait until the child is already a persistent absentee – intervene early. Track broken weeks as well as overall percentage and persistent absence. These are often an early flag for developing issues.

Make the approach in the right way. Phone the parents and explain that an invitation to a meeting is on its way and what it’s all about. Leave a message if they are not there, so the arrival of the letter is not a surprise. You might want to create a script for the call if you delegate this responsibility.

Make sure that the letter is supportive but is also clear about why you are worried, and don’t insist on medical evidence at this stage. Explain the link between attendance and attainment, being sure to take account of any literacy or language difficulties.

Make sure the right people are available on the day. If the child has any additional needs, can the SENDCO or someone from the SEN team be available? If you think there are health concerns, who could you bring into the meeting? If other agencies are involved, can you involve a family worker or social worker? Does the child have a particularly good relationship with a form tutor or head of year? Having the right people there will save delays and extra conversations outside the meeting.

Be flexible. If the parents cannot come in but are happy to talk, are they able to join an online meeting? This is not possible for all parents, so also offer the opportunity to have a group phone call, being clear about who’s in the room at school. From personal experience, these have worked very well and help engage parents who are worried about coming onto school premises.

Record the meeting clearly. Ensure that actions for all involved are clearly noted, with a review date included. This brings a level of commitment on both sides. Keep a central, anonymised record of the meetings. Measure the impact and report on this as part of your evidence of proactive attendance management for governors and Ofsted.

Be clear how widely the information will be shared. If the child is being assessed or has a plan under S17 or S47, the level of safeguarding concerns would require that the social worker was informed if not present at the meeting.

Don’t forget the pupil! Whatever their age, they should be encouraged to express their views and these should be recorded in the meeting. It’s so important to capture their voice.

Remember that this is not a full legal meeting – the aim is to gather information about barriers to full attendance and to agree to some actions. Although the meeting will be supportive, it can still form an important part of your legal information should you later decide that a prosecution is needed. It shows that you have tried to engage, and most LAs will want to see evidence of this. The meeting can also form the basis of a parenting contract, provide information for an education supervision order, and support any application for early help or social care support.

Further information

  • Improving school attendance: Support for schools and local authorities, DfE, updated September 2021: https://bit.ly/3A8BFgo

Toolkit

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

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About Author

Sara Griffiths

Sara Griffiths is an experienced senior manager, consultant and trainer with over 30 years’ experience working in services that support children, young people and families. She has expertise in school attendance, early help, quality assurance and safeguarding. She is a former President of NASWE (National Association for Support Workers in Education) and is currently an independent consultant linking with national and international organisations that hold the same values and have the same aims. saragriffiths521@gmail.com https://www.linkedin.com/in/saragriffiths

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