The DfE have recently published the National Absence data for 2017/18. Once again, Cornwall schools are above average for absence at both primary and secondary level. Cornish schools also show higher rates of absence that the statistical average for our South West neighbours. So, what can we do to improve?
1) Know your data – not just at the top level e.g. absence levels/authorised/unauthorised but dig below the surface. How are pupil premium students doing when compared to their peers? What about children with SEND or children who qualify for FSM? Are boys doing better than girls and is this consistent in all year groups? Do you have particular days of the week where you have higher absence levels? Are there certain children who miss a day a week regularly?
Most school attendance monitoring systems contain a wealth of data which can highlight where further support is needed. I ensure that the attendance officers I work with all have my SIMS training and are comfortable to generate specific reports at half termly or termly intervals. From here, we work together to interrogate the data and create an action plan.
2) Review your attendance policy – when was the last time it was overviewed and is it still relevant? Do all staff members know what their role is within the policy AND more importantly are they carrying out their role consistently. If not, then why not?
As a trainee teacher I remember getting a sum total of 1/2 hour of teaching about taking a register. Nothing within this covered the legal aspects of school attendance or how to support and engage young people to ensure they were attending regularly. As a new tutor I was woefully underprepared for working with a group of 13yr olds – but I was interested in them and that was a great start! As a trainer I now ensure that staff are comfortable to have attendance conversations with parents and young people and they understand the legal aspects of school attendance and their role in supporting the policy.
3) Provide a welcoming face
Following on from point 2, its important to ensure that as far as possible, engagement with pupils is a positive experience. Simple Human natures says that if you are greeted with a smile and a genuine interest you are more likely to want to go back; when you are greeted with an “oh hello stranger” and a sense of sarcasm then its not so appealing! Positive greetings also set up learning for the day – although “quite American” I love the underlying message in this video
This message doesn’t have to take hours and needs to be applied consistently by all members of staff.
Consider also whether students are getting mixed messages – it’s not ok for you to be late to class but its ok for me not to be ready for you (those members of staff who arrive after the students are already in the room). If punctuality matters for a pupil then I would argue it also matters for staff.
4) Highlight and reward good attendance
Too often attendance can become about what is not happening rather than what is working really well – share the success and make students want to be part of it! Highlight and reward those who get it right, or who are making a huge effort to improve. This can be done via class rewards, assemblies, newsletters, lucky dip gifts, postcards home or telephone calls to acknowledge progress. Be aware that whatever reward you use it has to be inclusive.
A student with a chronic medical need may never reach 100% attendance but they could have their own individual target or an acknowledgment that they are doing everything they can to be in as much as possible. Consider also how you are supporting them when they are away – not just with work but with social contact too – are classmates/tutor groups sending cards/messages home; making contact through social media (monitored) and providing a friendly face when the student returns.
5) Early Intervention (prevention is better than cure)
Don’t wait for the attendance to be below 90% before you engage with the student/parent or carer.
Consider whether you start sending information home about attendance once it drops below 92%, make attendance part of the assembly rota, talk about attendance in newsletters and at parents evenings. Use attendance clinics to focus on pupil absence as it starts to drop and set meaningful targets for improvement.
6) Curriculum Focus
It makes sense that if lessons are engaging then students will want to attend. If attendance is poor in certain terms or year groups consider whether there is a need to reflect upon curriculum delivery.
I’ve worked with schools where the attendance of lower-ability boys has been much higher than girls of a similar ability – when we unpicked the reasons the girls didn’t want to come in it turned out that the curriculum choices available to them in Key Stage 4 weren’t engaging and relevant to them and so they had voted with their feet!
Similarly, in periods of high exam/test stress some students find it easier to be at home rather than in school. Supporting them with exam techniques, relaxation and revision strategies can ensure that for some of these students school becomes an easier place to be.
7) Make use of pupil premium funding to support inclusion – breakfast clubs; literacy sessions; parent reading.
Without attendance attainment becomes a much bigger challenge. Students who attract pupil premium funding have already been shown to be at an academic disadvantage – it’s therefore important to know how those students could be best supported to improve outcomes.
This may be through the provision of a breakfast club to ensure they are nutritionally set up for the day and to give them time to get settled into school, it could be through the provision of additional support for learning needs or it could be through engaging the parent to support their child.
One successful scheme I have been involved with locally saw a dad/son (or other important male) reading group set up. This group was primarily designed to support boys in improving their literacy but also worked on supporting dads (some of whom also had low literacy) to engage with learning and enjoy coming into school. As a consequence of this, attendance improved and behavioural challenges were lowered.
8) Consider the views of your student population
Do you know what your student’s think of your school and its lessons? Do they feel safe in school? Who would they go to if they needed support?
Do they understand how attendance can impact on learning and what are good/poor reasons for absence?
Assemblies/Attendance Focus weeks and tutor group discussions can all support an understanding of how schools are viewed by their student population and what this means for their attendance.
I have often used the Blandford Attendance Scaling exercise with students and the results of this can be both eye-opening and a great conversation starter!
9) Engage parents
Often the children I most need to work with are those with parents who do not engage with school or have had bad experiences of school themselves.
Opening up opportunities for parents to come into school for positive reasons means that barriers and misconceptions can be broken down and a stronger relationship built.
This is often easier at primary school level just by the nature of the fact that children tend to be with one major member of staff for a whole year. However, parent learning sessions, parent drop-ins, school quiz evenings, assemblies and concerts are all useful tools.
Parent’s need to be aware of how attendance is presented in school. Make them aware that it will be flagged in newsletters; that letters will be sent home where the attendance is below a set % and that staff are there to support where possible.
10) Ensure you have effective support from outside agencies
Inevitably school budgets remain tight and the demand for provision can often outstrip supply.
Ensure that the support services you are engaging are working effectively to support you and are value for money! If they are not then I would be seeking support elsewhere.
On a personal level I always like to check in with my schools to ensure that they are happy with the service provided, that they don’t need any further support and that they feel they are getting value.