Attendance: A more intelligent approach?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A system of letters and fines, with the possibility of prosecution, has been part of many schools’ attendance policy for years. With children forced to stay home and at least a slight change in Ofsted's tone, is it time to consider a new approach in the post-lockdown world?

Having a clear and structured approach to behaviour and attendance is considered vital for any and every school. Advice has always been that there needs to be consistency in the way that policies are applied across a school.

But at what point should automatic application give way to a more bespoke approach?

Should a standard letter warning about the implications of 90 per cent attendance be sent out to a family where the child is a carer, for example?

Should a pupil whose only absence was for an unavoidable medical appointment miss out on their 100 per cent attendance certificate?

Most people would argue that exceptions must be made according to individual circumstances. But when and how far should such exceptions go before the policy is policy no longer? These are the questions that senior leaders grapple with constantly in schools.

School leaders know that to bend the rules is to invite challenge to policy and charges of unfair application. They know that what is best for the child is the priority, but that decision-making takes place in a context which respects statistics and uses them for accountability purposes.

But perhaps things are changing. Some schools have been finding that using a rigid approach has created barriers between school and parents that have prevented them from working together to improve the situation.

During and following the coronavirus outbreak and this period of prolonged and enforced absence, discussions over how many half-days of education have been lost and the cumulative impact on pupils are defunct and will need to be put on hold.

But there are other changes in the school environment. The new Education Inspection Framework (2019) states that inspectors will look for "a strong focus on attendance and punctuality so that disruption is minimised" as well as "clear and effective behaviour and attendance policies with clearly defined consequences that are applied consistently and fairly by all staff".

At the same time, Ofsted inspections are no longer as focused on data as before and there is greater understanding of the importance of mental health, an awareness that is likely to continue as we emerge from lockdown.

What does all this mean for how we look at and consider attendance?

A child-centred approach

Attendance is one area of school life that has begged to see everyone treated the same. A coherent and consistent approach across individuals and classes makes sense if attendance is to be seen as a priority. However, it must be tempered by the relationships that have been established and understanding of context.

Emma Meadus, headteacher of Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate, was concerned that their off-the-peg attendance policy was not having the impact it should. Speaking to her teaching assistants she discovered that the approach was being viewed by some as too "high-handed" and as such some parents, particularly of those children who were persistently absent, were no longer engaging.

Instead of communication through letter, there needed to be a meaningful conversation. This did not mean a lowering of expectations but a recognition that sometimes a different approach needed to be taken. This extended beyond just attendance but to behaviour too where they decided to drop a non-negotiable stance in favour of restorative practice.

Recognition of the importance of mental health and having strategies to address the difficulties that individuals are facing also had an impact. Establishing a learning mentor role in the school was a key step that enabled them to prioritise emotional literacy as part of a pyramid of need and support. By taking a more individual-focused approach, their data improved and persistent absence reduced by half.

Rewarding 100 per cent attendance?

Concerns have been raised about the use of 100 per cent attendance rewards. With some children having medical conditions that make them more likely to be absent, is it right that some children are continuously included in a race that they have no chance of winning? There are counter arguments that such a competition will always have favourites and that this is part of the world that children must learn to navigate.

Pressure placed on individuals when class rewards are used can also be an issue and many people would agree that children should not be made to feel that they have let their class down if they have been off school due to illness or for another medical reason. Perhaps personalised targets are the answer – although adjusting criteria can lead to charges of unfairness and favouritism.

Room for both

Victoria Franklin is a qualified social worker and senior education welfare consultant. She believes that there is room for both a more child-centred as well as the usual strategic approach – and that the two can be complementary and not conflicting. Knowing your school, the trends and how it compares still has value and can help schools direct resources and support where they are most needed.

"A secure strategic focus puts attendance at the heart of school business and ensures attendance is part of the school development plan and self-evaluation process," she explained. "In turn this means that, supported by detailed data analysis, the staff can have an overview of trends in the school which point to vulnerable groups and anomalies that may need addressing. This can then help to direct intervention where it is most needed."

Ms Franklin suggests that the teams that combine a more analytical approach with staff who have time to work with individual families could be the best option: "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."

Given the financial resources, of course.

What will Ofsted think?

At Coppice Valley, the individual approach taken had an upward effect on the statistics. But what if it had not? Could the school have justified its actions to Ofsted if the figures had not responded in the same way? Attendance used to be a limiting factor – so making sure you were above national average, no matter what, was crucial. A school could not be "outstanding" if its attendance was below the national average.

Now, however, Ofsted is, at least, prepared to listen. Schools are asked to provide inspectors "with up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils", which will form part of the evidence-base for the behaviour and attitudes judgement (EIF, 2019).

There is recognition of the impact of social, emotional and mental health on attendance and behaviour. Now there is greater opportunity for inspectors to use their professional judgement in relation to the curriculum that schools are offering. Pupils with SEND and other vulnerable pupils must be considered when inspectors are asking: "What is it like to attend this school?"

Now more than ever

As schools re-open, whether that is this academic year or next, senior leadership teams will need to be prepared to welcome a jet-lagged, weary yet possibly hyper group of pupils. Some of these pupils may have had substantial problems at home during their internment and schools are likely to see the first fallout of this.

With this in mind, taking an individual approach that allows some give and take will be important. Zero-tolerance will be even more difficult to apply and, without compensating too much and losing sight of the strategic, schools will need to find a way of accommodating some very damaged children.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Ofsted: Education Inspection Framework (EIF), 2019: http://bit.ly/2M3ttuj


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