Attendance – Simple Questions

Attendance matters. Schools only get to have the pupils for 6-7hrs out of 24hrs per day. They only get 190/365 days per year. If pupils miss any of that time this is a direct link to impacting on their attainment and progress. Attendance can change life chances for better and absence for worse.

The difficulty is that the problem is often highly complex; affected by a myriad of factors; linked to human relationships and involving a significant number of adults around each child.

I have put down some thoughts and challenges that I have come across during my school leadership experience. I have proposed some ideas to consider. The post had to end with signposts to additional reading as there are so many factors to consider, but i hope it is useful.

Are parents really aware of how many days off their child has had?

When you get your credit card bill in there can often be a real shock… did I really spend that much? Over a short four week period we have forgotten the small purchases – and maybe blocked out a couple of the larger ones – meaning that the size of the bill catches us off guard. We underestimated our spend.

Similarly, parents often underestimate how much their child is absent. They don’t connect the impact of persistent lateness, or the cumulative effect of lots of single days of absence. Just like the credit card bill reminds you of exactly what you owe, could we be better at providing information for parents about exactly how much their child has been absent… and how that compares to the average in the class?

Ideas to consider

Does timetabling have a negative impact on attendance?

We sometimes had an issue that the weekly piece of extended writing was done on a Friday morning… cue some children having multiple dental appointments every Friday! At one MAT I worked with, Monday was there extended day until 4.30pm – absence was unsurprisingly higher on that day.

Ideas to consider

  • Could the subject that the pupils look forward to the most be placed at the time where they might have been tempted to be absent? By putting PE classes to the last lesson on the Monday, the absence rate amongst a key group improved.
  • With the writing, pupils who were prone to being absent had pre teaching and support during the week so that they didn’t feel threatened by the thought of doing an extended piece

Does every child have a champion?

Clearly not every child needs a champion. However you will have your vulnerable pupils, those with high absence – who is their designated champion?

  • Are high concern absentee pupils known to senior/year group team
  • Is there a designated person for them to have contact with in school
  • Do staff deliberately plan to use the 10×2 rule… aim to have 10 positive interactions of up to 2mins per week: how did their football team do; what clubs have they got on; asking what was being covered in their literacy lesson; how are they feeling; talking about your own dog/pet/family; eat lunch with them; join them for breakfast… informal conversations to build that positive relationship

Ideas to consider

  • Staff greeting every pupil as they arrive at the start of the lesson and taking them time to say goodbye at the end of the day.
  • Remind high value pupils as they leave what they have to look forward to tomorrow – and how much you will be looking forward to seeing them.
  • With younger pupils, make the most of opportunities to have positive contact with the parent and make sure they know what amazing learning opportunities are coming during the week.
  • If you have social media or a class blog, celebrate the child’s success and make sure everyone knows
  • Could you sign up for the text message service to send greeting to pupils directly (Secondary school) and positive messages about school? What they have to look forward to, positive affirmations, and how you look forward to seeing them.

Be aware of high cost sanctions

In one Secondary school I worked with they had a ‘zero tolerance’ policy of uniform. If pupils didn’t have the right clothing they would be sent to isolation for the day + one hour of isolation after school until 4.30pm.

However if you called in sick, you could just have the day off at home. It happened to our family. My daughter’s school shoes had gone missing after a PE lesson. She had a pair of plain black shoes that could have sufficed for one day, but the policy would have dictated that she go to isolation – no exceptions for any pupil (even one on the honours programme, with 100% attendance and only mislaid the shoes as she was doing extra coaching at school for her Duke of Edinburgh Award). So, we called her in as sick, she had the day off, we got her a new pair of shoes and she returned the next day.

In a Primary context it can be very unsettling for a child if the teacher promises they will face the sanction when they come in the following day, especially if this means the punishment has to be put on hold over a weekend. It can make it more likely the child won’t attend at all on the Monday.

Ideas to consider

  • Do some sanctions incentivise absence – are sanctions reasonable and proportionate?
  • How are uniform concerns applied with vulnerable/disadvantaged pupils? Surely it is  more important that they are in school? How could the school help?
  • Try to ensure that staff deal with issues there and then – don’t leave consequences for the following day. With the youngest pupils they would need to see the consequence immediately or they will not make the link to the behaviour – similar to rewards.
  • How is lateness punished? In one Secondary school, pupils who were 10 mins late would get a detention after school. That just meant that pupils who were late would be at least an hour late and claim they had a medical appointment… or turn round and just go home to avoid the detention.

What influence does homework have?

Some pupils – through no fault of their own – will always find it hard to complete homework:

  • little access to internet or technology to complete the task
  • no quiet workspace at home
  • lack of support/confidence from parents to aid them
  • other clubs and responsibilities outside of school which mean time is scarce
  • no adult prepared to read with the child or fill in their reading record

There is also the point that some homework tasks seem to be pointless

  • teachers insist on completion but don’t mark them or provide feedback
  • task isn’t linked to the learning currently being undertaken
  • the level of the homework is too high or too low – my daughter has often come home and shown me work that is far too easy for her.

Ideas to consider

  • Avoid punishing pupils for non compliance with homework – especially in the Primary phase
  • Could the approach to homework be reviewed so that it doesn’t cause pupils to feel anxious and more likely to miss a day of school – which might mean handing out less.
  • When is homework set? With the increased use of cloud systems, some pupils can find that teachers have added extra tasks over the weekend. Could there be an agreement that teachers must set the homework with the pupils in the class and that they won’t add to it after hours?
  • Is there a way that target pupils could be offered a homework club – but there would need to be some recognition of the extra work they are putting in.

How personalised is the curriculum?

All schools tend to offer extra curricular clubs. But are they the right ones? What is exciting for some is not for others. If there are pupils whose attendance is a concern, has time been taken to see if the wider curriculum appeals to them?

In addition, is the normal wider curriculum being sustained? Some teachers – with the best of intentions – can start to let maths and literacy bleed into the afternoon. If there are pupils who find those subjects challenging, and really crave the Science lessons, the design technology sessions or PE activities which are being sacrificed, they may just decide to stay at home.

Even from the Primary age range, it is vital that pupils see the connection between what they are doing and how it will lead to a job/career. How does your curriculum champion careers, provide chances to meet different professions and cater to the interests of the high value attendance pupils? What job would they like? Is there a field they are interested in – can you arrange a visit? For older pupils this can then lead onto apprenticeships, work experience and sound guidance and mentoring.

Ideas to consider

  • survey those high absentee pupils to find out what they would respond to for an extra curricular offer. In fact, could it be offered during the normal school day – maybe a lunchtime club.
  • ensure that the breadth of curriculum is maintained so that all pupils have the chance to succeed and enjoy their learning
  • how are older pupils supported to see a pathway to employment – one that challenges and interest them?

Do staff know enough information?

Family circumstances can be extremely challenging. Whilst attending school may be the teacher’s main priority, for many vulnerable pupils it is not. I have known pupils to be absent because:

  • the mother had to flee to a refuge following an attack from her partner
  • police had broken into the home late at night as part of a drugs raid
  • an eviction had caused the family to relocate to the other side of town
  • a lack of money meant that there was no electricity to use the washing machine and clean the clothes
  • the children had been taken into emergency foster care
  • their father had suffered a heart attack during the night and died
  • undergoing their latest round of chemotherapy

Sadly this list could go on. Just when you think you have heard the most heart wrenching tale, there is a family who have had to endure even more traumatic upset and worry. At this moment in their life, what they definitely do not need is a blunt and insensitive phone call reminding them that their child is deemed to be persistently absent and that they will now have to be referred to the Educational Welfare Officer.

It is highly likely that there will be a link between those who are absent and those who are in need; Pupil Premium eligible; SEN; single parent; have a serious medical issue. How can you make sure that all the right people know enough information – without breaching confidentiality – to ensure that

  • not too many different people are contacting the family – I have had to rebuild a parent’s trust after they received 3 calls in the same morning from the class teacher, the attendance officer and the SEND lead… all asking where their child is.
  • ensure that staff know their children and know their school – what is your context, what challenges are you facing, give them the data and share with them – without names – some of the issues that families are facing. Teachers can operate in a silo of their own classroom. If you don’t give them some understanding of the other pressures faced by families and staff, how can they show compassion and awareness?

Ideas to consider

  • flexibility with Pupil Premium funding to aid those eligible pupils who have attendance needs – can it help pay for Mum’s Oyster Card to allow her to get the bus each morning? If you bought the child a bike, would they be able to cycle to school themselves and be on time? How creative can you be to ensure that the money makes the greatest difference to those in need… maths interventions only work if the child is in school!
  • have a single point of contact for first day phonecalls – and ensure that they have a strong relationship with the safeguarding and SEND lead.
  • think about providing training for those staff on the front desk. Customer service and a professional phone manner are skills that can be strengthened and developed.
  • challenge Middle Leaders on their awareness of their pupil cohort and how reflective it is of the school as a whole. What are they doing to support those pupils? What positive interactions have they had with these pupils?
  • how does the school show compassion for those in need? Are cards sent to the pupils in hospital? Are there calls made to check if they are OK, not just if they are in school?

Managing Transition Effectively

If you are an Infant/Junior/Middle school, how well do you manage the transition of your pupils to the next stage?

If you are a Secondary school, how well do you identify and support the attendance concern pupils prior to their arrival in Y7 and in their first weeks?

There is also the transition from one teacher to another to consider. One high value pupil had an excellent relationship with his teacher – she just ‘got’ him. Conversations about football, an interest in his Match Attax cards, taking the time to have lunch with him and ensuring that he was a valued member of the class. The next year he moved to a teacher who – I’m sure with no deliberate intent – didn’t get him. The first day didn’t go well and that quickly became an excuse for the return to sporadic attendance.

These changes of environment can be an added pressure for pupils who all too easily avoid school, or are prone to missing days. Parents may feel that there will be a period of grace before absence is noted. I have seen this happen when working in one particular area – pupils would be moved from one local school to the next to avoid being the focus of safeguarding or attendance concerns. Effective communication between schools and stages of education is vital to minimise lost time and maintain the message that every day is vital

Ideas to consider

  • Is your attendance lead also involved in transition? When do they first make contact with families/pupils? How do they proactively minimise the impact of the transition? Can you evidence how attendance has at least been maintained and ideally improved?
  • How does your school reach out to the next stage of the child’s education to provide information and support? Could these systems be improved in partnership with the next stage?
  • Do Team Leaders get involved with internal transition of high value pupils to ensure that they have every chance of continuing an excellent relationship with their teacher. This links back to the point earlier about there being a consistent champion for the child – not one who is Year Group/class dependent.
  • Could you spare the capacity to maintain contact with the child in their first weeks of their new school – go and check in on them, spend a lesson working with them, pop over to have lunch with them?

Additional Reading

There are a number of other ideas that could be considered in this post:

  • influence of high quality teaching to ensure child has every chance of being successful – can they read fluently; is the work at the ‘Goldilocks level’; is classroom management effective; is bullying dealt with effectively
  • when are pupils and staff surveyed to find out what they think about the school’s key challenges? How are those surveys acted on?
  • when do senior staff meet with the target groups – whoever they are – and ask them first hand: how is their learning; what is a day typically like; how have they been supported
  • how well do you know the pupils who are absent – what groups do they fall into? What do you know about their lives? Do you know where they live?
  • improving lateness is just as important as managing attendance – how many minutes are being lost every day?
  • accuracy of attendance records – are staff trained to use the right codes? Is there a succession plan for if your attendance lead or SIMS input person is off sick?
  • reporting to Governors – is their a link Governor, how are reports compiled, do Governors have the information to aid support/challenge? Are reporting strategies consistent so that trends can be identified and Governors empowered to see how their school is doing compared to National and MAT trends?
  • across a MAT, how consistent are the expectations for the behaviour/attendance lead? Are they on the same pay scale? What training to they have access to? Is there an agreed job description? What oversight is there from Trustees? Do they get to meet together to share ideas, progress and plan next steps? How is information collected and used centrally?
  • how is the wider parental community engaged? What information are they given about the importance of attendance? Can they help to influence the parents who are ‘harder to reach’? Do you share the links between attendance and GCSE data? Do you share whole school targets and progress towards them? Are there late gates done that are visible for parents? Are you relentless enough?
  • how have you showcased your efforts to share with other schools in your area? If you share responsibility for the community with other schools, how well do you share intelligence and resources?

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