As we return to a form of normality in schools, the Department for Education (2022) has placed a renewed focus on school attendance. Among the valuable descriptions of actions schools can take to improve attendance, it makes reference to ‘barriers’. Laura Juniper offers insight into what these might be.
- A child or young person’s special educational needs have the potential to become a barrier to their attendance.
- A review of behaviour logs or seeking teacher feedback will enable an attendance officer to identify possible unmet SEND needs.
- The first and often most valuable step is to seek feedback from the individual themself.
- Consent for a full investigation of need should be sought from the parent or guardian.
A simple comparison of the persistent absenteeism data among school-aged children indicates that persistent absenteeism is more prevalent among those on the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Register (19.3%) and those in receipt of an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) (25.6%) than among with those with no SEND needs (11.1%) (Explore Education Statistics, 2021). This suggests that a child or young person’s special educational needs have the potential to become a barrier to their attendance.
How can special educational needs affect attendance?
When a child or young person’s needs are left unmet, their ability to access the learning environment is greatly reduced. This in turn may lead to emotional dysregulation and consequential school absence. A review of behaviour logs or seeking teacher feedback will enable an attendance officer to identify possible unmet SEND needs in persistent absentees.
Observable signs of unmet special educational needs include:
- A high frequency of behavioural incidents for being disorganised, doing insufficient or messy classwork, or failure to follow instructions: Pupils with ADHD and inattention as a primary characteristic have difficulty concentrating. Without support they find it difficult to come to lessons with the appropriate equipment. They struggle to write their ideas in a logical or ordered manner and so their work may appear messy; alternatively, they may simply write very little as they are frequently distracted by noises or movements in the classroom. Pupils with ADHD often experience rapidly changing thoughts and so may find it difficult to remember and thus follow instructions.
- A high frequency of behavioural incidents for persistent disruptions or inappropriate language towards staff and peers: Pupils with ADHD and hyperactivity as a primary characteristic are often impulsive. They give knee-jerk reactions to emotive comments, often saying something that they very quickly regret.
- Low attendance at lessons or an increase in their use of a ‘Time Out’ card: Pupils with sensory processing disorder in noisy or visually stimulating environments can experience sensory overload. This can look like extreme irritability or physically covering their eyes or ears. For some individuals, the tactile overstimulation from wearing a school uniform is simply enough to become a barrier to attending school.
- Absence when there are planned changes to the school day, or more frequent absence following a change to their timetable: Pupils with autism and/or anxiety often experience heightened anxiety around change. Those at risk of becoming a persistent absentee may attend school but display visual distress and refusal to attend the planned changes.
- A high frequency of behavioural incidents for damage to personal equipment or school property, inappropriate language or defiance: Pupils with speech, language and communication difficulties may find it difficult to communicate when they are struggling to access work or feeling overwhelmed. Instead, they may use actions or inaction to communicate their feelings.
- A higher-than-average frequency of positive behaviour events for classwork, homework and/or test results: Some pupils display perfectionist tendencies and place high expectations on themselves. Often these pupils experience heightened anxiety during exam seasons and so their attendance may decrease in the lead-up to or during exam periods.
- A high frequency of insufficient classwork and/or homework, low-level disruptions or disorganisation: Without support pupils with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or dyscalculia have difficulty accessing the work set. As a result, they may not have sufficient time to complete the task at hand, or find it difficult to recall the instructions and so go off-task or forget pieces of equipment.
How can we investigate SEND barriers in pupils?
If it is apparent from the information collected that an individual’s attendance is being affected by an unmet SEND need then an investigation should begin. The first and often most valuable step is to seek feedback from the individual themself. There is a simple questionnaire in the Toolkit that asks the child or young person for their views of their experience within the learning environment. The pupil may offer further evidence of an unmet need or simply offer an alternative explanation for the high frequency of behaviour incidents.
Consent for a full investigation of need should be sought from the parent or guardian. Following this the attendance officer can work alongside the school special educational needs coordinator (SENCo) to collect the evidence needed to support the screening of potential SEND needs. This may take the form of the parents, pupils and teachers completing psychometric questionnaires that screen for special educational needs such as ADHD, autism, and speech, language and communication difficulties.
Alternatively, online computer programmes may be used to screen for dyslexia and dyscalculia. The school SENCo may already have a bank of appropriate psychometric tests available or they will be able to refer to the specialist advisory service or educational psychologist.
How can we improve the attendance of pupils with SEND?
Once the special educational needs of the child or young person have been identified, the school SENCo will be able to devise a support plan or share recommendations from specialist advisory teachers on how best to support the pupil. With appropriate support and reasonable adjustment in place, a pupil’s special educational needs will no longer act as a barrier to their attendance and they will be able to access their learning environment confidently and comfortably.
- ‘Pupil absence in schools in England: autumn term 2020/21’, National Statistics: https://bit.ly/AbsenceStats
- ‘Improving school attendance: support for schools and local authorities’, DfE: https://bit.ly/Improving-Attendance
Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Laura Juniper is a SENCO, Mental Health Lead and Autism Lead, having taught in mainstream secondary schools for over ten years. As a psychology graduate, she has a particular interest in cognitive psychology and psychobiological perspectives and uses this to inform her practice.