Targeting truancy

Written by: HTU | Published:

Every headteacher will have had to deal with unauthorised absence for one reason or another. Val Cameron, head of Park Lane Primary School in Peterborough, tells us of her experiences and how she has dealt with the issue

Recent reports suggest that over 66,000 pupils of all ages skip school on an average day and unauthorised absence in primary schools soared to record levels last year. This increase is despite local authorities (LAs) bringing in fines of up to £100 for parents who take their children out of school during term without authorisation.

As headteacher of Park Lane Primary School in Peterborough, I have had over 50 families requesting to take term-time holidays this year. Although this may seem a little high for a school with 464 pupils, unauthorised absence has been significantly reduced since 2007/08, when we received over 100 requests in a year. The reason for the improvement is down to the introduction of a number of attendance initiatives.

Fun in the sun

I do see why parents would want to take holidays in school time with a family of four saving approximately £1,000 going away in May or June as opposed to August. Even a fine from the council of £100 would not discourage them when they can save much more on their annual holiday. For some families, it becomes difficult to afford a holiday any other time of year, but parents have to realise the significance of their children’s absence from school.

We have seen firsthand how persistent or long periods of absence from school can have a direct impact on attainment as pupils suffer from a break in the continuity of learning or miss important topics. Pupils returning from a holiday mid-topic often lack confidence due to the fact that they are unable to understand the work as well as their peers. A parent may see it as their right to decide when to take their children on holiday but if we authorised a family to do it for two weeks every year for 12 years, that is equivalent to missing two terms of learning. The simple fact is that a child’s results and progress suffers when they are not in school.

To tackle the issue of unauthorised absence in our school, we first needed to tackle parental attitudes so they could see the impact of term-time holidays.

Misconceptions

We found that a common misconception among our parents was that their child is entitled to 10 days holiday from school. While parents are allowed to apply for up to 10 days leave, this is only for exceptional circumstances, such as bereavement, or following a serious illness in the family.

We have a procedure for term-time absence to address this, so if a parent would like to request leave for their child, they need to fill out a form specifying reasons for the absence and the dates. I will always interview every parent to assess the reasons and if it is exceptional circumstances, the leave will be approved.

However, if the leave is for a holiday, as is commonly the case, I let the parents know that it is not approved and explain the reasons why. I think this personal approach helps parents understand that we take a child’s absence seriously and generally it leads to them agreeing that taking their child out of school is not in their best interests.

Sharing attendance information

We have also introduced electronic registration, which is used every day in every classroom. Previously we took registration manually on paper so it made it difficult to spot patterns of absence. It would also become difficult to keep tabs on notes from parents to explain absence. A lot of administration time would be spent double checking registers.

The benefit of electronic registration is that it allows the school to have immediate access to attendance information from across the school.

If a child is off sick, we expect the parents to call in to tell us. When they do, the school office is able to enter the reason for the absence against data. This is then displayed on the electronic register for the class teacher or other teachers to see.

If a parent does not call in, the school office is alerted to the absence following registration so that staff can call parents immediately. This will enable us to find out if the child is off for genuine sickness or other reasons.

Should a child’s attendance fall below 95 per cent, we can see this immediately and we can also drill down into the data to assess in more detail what is happening. If the absence is due to persistent illness and the child has no known medical condition, or there is not a bout of flu or chicken pox going around the school, we will investigate further.

The impact of the data

We would invite parents to a meeting to discuss persistent absence, which often leads to a positive outcome. For instance, some parents of young children have kept their child at home because they miss them while they are at school and want to spend some time with them. While they may see the odd day here or there as “no big deal”, showing the total number of missing days on a computer screen seems to have an effect.

We can also show the direct impact of regularly missing school on the child’s attainment. At this point parents’ opinions about the occasional absence can change quite rapidly.

One particular example was of a family of keen caravaners that would often take their child out of school on Fridays and Mondays to enable them to miss the weekend traffic and enjoy a longer break. Following another term-time request for holiday, we invited the parents in for a meeting and showed on screen the number of Fridays and Mondays their child was missing. They were visibly shocked and obviously had no idea how much school was being missed. The result of this meeting was that the parents did not do this again.

The same goes for parents that bring their child in last to school on a regular basis. Many parents do not see this as a big problem, but a child who arrives late often feels less relaxed and enthusiastic about starting class. They can also miss potentially important explanations about work and disrupt the flow of lessons. Our system allows us to record latecomers and spot which children are doing so regularly so we can have a word with their parents to avoid it in future.

Rewarding attendance

Rewarding good attendance has also been key to keeping unauthorised absence levels low. We make sure the children are involved too. Our teachers display attendance on an electronic whiteboard so that the children can see the register being taken and even register themselves by touching their name on the board. Involving the children more in the registration process highlights the importance of attending school regularly and on time.

Pupils with high attendance are given individual certificates and the class with the best attendance is awarded the attendance toy bear called Cookie to display in their classroom for that week. This encourages pupils to relay the importance of attending school to parents and ensures they want to help their class get the bear.

We are also continuing to inform parents about attendance by distributing attendance brochures and holding talks. One of our brochures, Attendance Matters, outlines the issues relating to lack of attendance and also shows each phase of a child’s education so they can see how much would be missed as a result of absence.

The key to success

Cheaper holidays during term-time will mean that the temptation to take children out of school will always be there. What we are trying to do is change attitudes among parents and children about absence from school and we think this has been one of the most important factors in improving our attendance rates.

Engaging parents by giving them access to information relating to attendance and the impact it has on attainment is helping us do this. Motivating children to see the importance of being at school is having a significant impact too.

By introducing initiatives to improve attendance at the school, we are ensuring that parents are bringing their children to school regularly and limiting the number of unauthorised absence days they take, if any. This reduces gaps in learning for children attributing to a happier and more confident learning experience.

• Park Lane Primary School uses SIMS for lesson registration, attainment and attendance management. Visit www.capita-cs.co.uk


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