Taking a child-centred approach and taking a strategic approach to attendance needn’t be at odds with one another. In this article, Victoria Franklin explains how the two can work together, focusing on common areas of ground rather than the differences.
- There are historical reasons why there is a tension between child-centred approaches and strategic approaches.
- Both approaches are necessary and can complement each other where there is good communication.
- Above all, a strategic approach must not lead to safeguarding issues being overlooked.
Getting a balanced approach to attendance matters from a strategic and child-centred point of view needs to be carefully thought through and implemented. It can be an area of conflict and both approaches are needed to improve attendance and outcomes for children.
Tensions are often evident in schools where pressure is on to improve attendance rates, but this is not exclusively so. This conflict of approach to school attendance work has existed since 1870 when school attendance first became compulsory and it is important to consider this in the context of how school attendance work has evolved and is currently undertaken.
What are the issues to be aware of and what lessons can be learnt from outcomes where a balanced approach was not taken?
At the time compulsory education was introduced, it was agreed by policy makers – those that held power and those with a social conscience – that children needed to be in school and educated for a variety of reasons:
- To educate the workforce.
- To improve social conditions.
- For social control – policing/law and order.
- Philanthropic reasons.
- To support children and families.
- To separate parental and State responsibilities.
Enforcement using the law was used for any parent not complying. At the same time, a philanthropic/welfare approach was emerging that focused on the needs of the family – this included practical needs such as food and clothing.
This dual approach evolved over time and in the late 1970s, the Education Welfare Service was formed as an amalgamation of both these roles. Education welfare officers were employed by local authorities to both maintain the law around school attendance and support children and families to engage with education.
Initially, many education welfare officers were ex-service personnel who were able to carry out the enforcement role but fell short of delivering the welfare element. In time, this role attracted more social work-trained personnel with a child- and family-centred approach.
This see-saw tendency between enforcement and welfare was replicated from the top down depending on what political party was in power and the views and beliefs held about tackling poor school attendance.
A desire to improve social and educational outcomes through improving school performance including attendance, led to the formation of the National Strategies team in 1997. They worked across local authorities and schools and a strategic view of school attendance was taken for the first time with resources produced to help schools. Their work included having a focus on a new cohort of children who were ‘persistently absent’. This resulted in an increase of specialist staff with an independent focus on both strategic and child-centred areas of work.
A move away from local authority control to academy and free schools over the last ten years has seen more of this work being absorbed and carried out by schools employing staff with a broad range of backgrounds. Local authorities have also divided their school attendance remit into distinct areas of work with a heavy focus on statutory work.
The strategic focus
A secure, strategic focus puts attendance at the heart of school business, ensures attendance is part of the school development plan and self evaluation process and dedicates leadership of this to a senior member of staff.
Along with detailed data analysis, this enables all staff to have a greater depth of understanding and knowledge about the association between attendance and attainment and how it all fits together. Linking this approach to the work directly carried out with students helps focus where need is greatest and directs intervention to the right students to support attendance improvement.
Securing a strategic role can help schools to play an objective part in any higher-level staged procedures that may be required to address poor attendance and this in turn enables other staff to take a different approach.
A child-centred focus
A child-centred approach or focus is often more evident at the front line and at operational level, where pastoral staff often have in-depth knowledge and understanding about school attendance difficulties relating to a student or their families.
The role of supporting the student to engage and access education often involves supporting family members too. Frequently known as family link workers or home-school liaison workers, they can often find themselves starting their work in a supportive role and then having to switch to a more punitive approach if attendance doesn’t improve. This can undermine the work they have already done and result in a loss of trust from the student and family.
A child-centred approach elevates a child’s position/views and well-being and it is often the pastoral staff that ensure the voice of the child is heard and represented at meetings and in decision making. By adapting school structures, each role and approach can work well together and is symbiotic, which then benefits the whole school.
Finding the balance
In some schools, several staff may work together on attendance issues in isolation with no communications structure. In other cases, the job falls perhaps to one member of staff who has sole responsibility for attendance matters from child and family support through to prosecution stage.
Perhaps the ideal model is more likely to be a well-resourced attendance team with specified roles that include strategic and pastoral managers together with good mechanisms for communication. This model contributes to clarity of role/boundaries and aids understanding of how each role interlinks and contributes to the whole.
If the balance is not achieved between a child-centred and strategic approach, there can be alarming consequences. In several serious case reviews where school attendance was a concern, strategy and procedure were weighted above the voice of the child and, in the case of Child A (see box to the right), their voice was not sought at all.
The one thing that unites all professionals in attendance work and that must inform practice is the statutory guidance ‘Working together to safeguard children’ (July 2018) and ‘Keeping children safe in education’ (September 2019), which school staff must have regard to. Respect and acknowledgement of the different roles and skills needed to address attendance matters is vital to its success.
The serious case review states:
‘No professional discussed the possible reasons for poor school attendance directly with … or Child A.
Child A’s secondary school did seek to tackle the attendance problem, but their approach was procedurally driven, rather than based on direct contact with the family. This reflects the national pressures on schools in relation to dealing with non-attendance.’
The recommendations were that:
- ‘the Board should, by dissemination of the key messages arising from this review, ensure that schools are reminded of the links between non-attendance at school and the safeguarding of children
- the Board should promote an emphasis on ensuring that the “voice of the child” is heard across all partner agencies and that this is demonstrated in working practices and service development.’
(Taken from ‘Merton Safeguarding Children Board: Serious Case Review: Child A’ Executive Summary, Kevin Harrington JP, BA, MSc, CQSW)
- A. Williams, P. Ivin and C. Morse, The Children of London: Attendance and Welfare at School 1870-1990, Institute of Education, 2001
- ‘Working together to safeguard children’, DfE, July 2018
- ‘Keeping children safe in education’, DfE, September 2019