Working hand in hand: A whole-school approach to safeguarding and attendance

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Securing good attendance is a key issue for schools at the best of times, but particularly now. Steve Burnage looks at how addressing attendance can be built into a whole-school approach that recognises the difficulties families may be experiencing.

Summary

  • Ofsted outlines successful practice when it comes to attendance.
  • The circumstances which parents find themselves in can make a crucial difference to how they support their child when it comes to attendance.
  • How to engage these parents and work cooperatively with them to improve attendance is everyone’s business.

The Ofsted publication Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence (February 2022) outlines that

  • ‘schools that improve attendance … all have different starting points. However, their approaches tend to have a number of features in common … leaders:
  • have high expectations for every pupil’s attendance at school
  • communicate these expectations clearly, strongly, and consistently to parents and to pupils
  • set expectations about attendance from the outset
  • explain to parents and pupils why good attendance is important and how it helps pupils to achieve
  • listen to parents carefully to find out why their children are not attending well enough so that they can act accordingly
  • challenge parents who do not make sure that their children attend, but also offer support where needed
  • have the right people in place to have these conversations with parents
  • ensure that attendance is always recorded accurately
  • systematically analyse attendance information so that they can see patterns
    and trends
  • use this analysis to target their actions, both for individuals and at a whole-school level
  • make sure that attendance is ‘everyone’s business’ in school
  • understand that good attendance does not happen in isolation …
  • do not stop pushing for whole-school improvement once attendance reaches the national average
  • see the process of securing good attendance for all pupils as an ongoing process …’

All of this is OK when working with those parents who value education, have reasonably functional lives and are able to engage with the school system. But, as we know, this picture is not typical of many of the parents our schools work with. In this article, we will explore whole-system approaches to safeguarding and attendance that enable us to engage and work with these more difficult-to-reach parents.

Key question:

What arrangements are there in school to identify and safeguard the wellbeing of pupils who need help because of their parents’ circumstances or behaviour?

Strategies for issues around attendance

In order to improve the attainment of some of the most deprived children and place their safeguarding at the heart of what we do, schools should be working with families to address the underlying issues behind children’s barriers to education. You might start by using the ‘Form – Identifying the problem’ (see the Toolkit) and then go on to consider some of these effective intervention strategies:

Establish a positive relationship

Before discussing a student’s poor attendance, establish a positive relationship with parents. Often, schools contact families only when there is a problem. Families begin to expect that a phone call or other contact from the school means the student is in trouble. In the rush to discuss a student’s attendance, we can inadvertently give the message that parents don’t know much and need to do better.

Instead, create a welcoming school environment and build relationships and trust with parents first. When parents feel welcome in a school and respected as an important partner in their children’s education, they are more willing to contribute and respond openly and positively.

Communicate clear expectations and support

You might orient parents to school policies and expectations for student attendance and punctuality. Share contact information for council or community agencies that are available to help families that may have difficulties with health issues, homelessness, or lack of transportation.

Try to help parents understand that school staff will be monitoring attendance and are available to help families address barriers, such as transportation and health problems, which might be preventing a child from getting to school. You might use ‘Form – Monitoring vulnerable children’ (see the Toolkit) to help you track interventions and their impact.

Take a strengths-based approach

Don’t assume that if a child is persistently absent it is a signal that parents do not care about the child’s education or attendance. They might care deeply. Ask about what they already do that works. Find out if they can think of any positive examples of activities or supports that made it easier to get their child to school.

Check for understanding

Do parents know what persistent absence is and its impact on their children’s success? Help parents connect the dots so they understand the impact of persistent absence on their child’s future success and what it means for how they support the school success of their child.

Communicate in the parent’s primary language

Share written materials in the parent’s home language, offering research on the importance of attendance and tips for how parents can ensure that students attend school every day. If this is a phone call, consider mailing the handout to the parent as part of a follow-up communication. However, be careful not to rely on handouts and mailings alone.

Offer support when needed

Ask parents about what makes it hard to get their child to school. Discuss what would help to reduce the level of absences. Help them understand that absences – even if excused – can harm their child’s ability to learn and succeed in school and that the school community wants to help.

Remember that parent engagement is an on-going process, not a one-time event

Creating on-going opportunities for dialogue with parents invites them to partner in crafting solutions. Many people at a school site, such as teachers, school nurses, counsellors, after-school providers, or parent leaders can and should engage with parents about attendance.

Discussions about attendance should be integrated into regular school meetings, parent educations and training on other topics. Let’s face it: what parent would voluntarily give up an evening or part of a weekend to attend a meeting that is just about attendance? Embed the exercises into larger discussions about how to help children succeed in school, tapping into parents’ hopes and dreams.

Key question:

What procedures does the school have in place for engaging the parents and carers of vulnerable children?

We know that working hand in hand to provide direct, positive support provided by schools to families in need has a great impact on the schools involved, the students and their families. Once successful parental intervention is in place through a whole-school approach to safeguarding and attendance, our students will be safer and will attend better, while also significantly improving their family’s quality of life.

Further information

Toolkit

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

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About Author

Steve Burnage

Steve Burnage has a breadth of experience leading challenging inner-city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email simplyinset@gmx.com or via his website www.simplyinset.co.uk.

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