Tackling truancy and driving up attendance

Written by: HTU | Published:

Deputy headteacher Nadia Jarana explains some of the strategies her inner city school employed to help transform their attendance figures

When I became deputy head of Orchard Primary School in Hackney last year and attendance was below the national average of 95 per cent, the challenge for me as a senior leader was clear from the outset. 

My belief has always been that in order to improve the educational achievement of children from disadvantaged areas, attendance is a critical issue that we need to crack first. For these young people, school is their only link to learning and, put simply, they have to be there. 

I have seen first-hand the negative impact that absence can have on a child’s educational attainment. When I first joined, more than 80 per cent of the persistently absent children were significantly below the national expectations for their age.

The causes of persistent absence were diverse, from disruptive home life – including child protection and housing issues – to cultural factors such as parents not valuing or trusting the education system. 

One child was in remission from cancer and living alone with his mother, who had a drug and alcohol problem. He had missed a whole year of school and was well behind in his development. It was these children who we desperately needed to reach out to. 

With the overall responsibility for attendance, I needed to devise a strategy for increasing overall attendance rapidly, meeting the target set by the borough of 95 per cent.

Tackling disengagement

As research into these students highlighted that disengagement was a key factor in their absence, our first action was to promote attendance and try to raise engagement among this group. 

This resulted in high-profile assemblies where the executive head drew weekly prizes, such as toys, craft sets, “cool” books and sports equipment, for 100 per cent attendance, along with the introduction of an Attendance Champion Scheme, which saw certificates and trophies awarded to our highest attenders.

I also knew from the outset that my objective would be difficult to achieve without targeted support for all persistently absent students. We set up booster classes and a homework club funded through the Pupil Premium, and the school now delivers attendance mentoring sessions, focusing on the negative impact of low attendance on friendships and achievement. 

In particular, we were able to reach out to one child working with the learning mentor who reported that she hated school because she had no friends. 

By working on her social group through circle time, along with regular discussions about the negative impact her low attendance was having on her sense of belonging, she finally was able to see the link. She now attends a lunchtime intervention and brings two or three friends to play games and discuss any concerns.

Engaging parents

Another crucial factor was improving liaison with parents. We held regular coffee mornings to communicate our commitment to high levels of attendance and explain our rationale – the link to achievement. 

As well as informing parents of procedures relating to absence, leave and lateness, we also introduced them to our fortnightly attendance notice. This included facts about the impact of low attendance on self-esteem and learning, and gave specific praise for individuals who have improved attendance.

We have also become more rigorous with calling home on the first day of absence. No absences are now authorised if a reason is not given or without medical evidence. For families in very complex circumstances, we have created a walking bus initiative, in which our parent liaison officer and learning mentor collect and bring persistently absent children to breakfast club and school.

This in particular helped two children with a young mother who was previously keeping them off school to keep her company. With our staff collecting the children themselves, she is now unable to lie about their health. 

Through the school she has also started to work with Kids Company, an organisation working with vulnerable young people, to work on her own social and emotional needs. 

Another case that stands out is a child who is on a child protection plan who a year ago was regressing in her academic levels. Her mother kept her at home to help with the housework, while her younger sibling still came to school. On the rare occasions when she did attend she was tired and withdrawn. 

However, by supporting her though links with her social work, regular home visits, booster classes, and a funded place in breakfast and after-school clubs, her attendance improved. 

It has been really rewarding to see her make accelerated progress over the last term, having also recently receiving an award from her class teacher for her excellent written work.

In addition to our engagement with families, I am working with local GPs to ensure all services focus on attendance for future health and wellbeing. We have posted notices in all local GP surgeries encouraging parents to make appointments outside school hours and we share information with GPs when we suspect illnesses are being fabricated to justify absence. 

Our aim is for families to get access to the actual support they need. Our office staff are also now well-informed on minor ailments and illnesses, and can advise parents on the length of absence most likely needed for specific illnesses. Parental engagement has not just improved children’s attendance on particular days – it has also compelled some families to discuss and address the real issues that lead to their child’s low attendance.

It has been a tough journey, and one that would not have been possible without targeting all groups who have an impact upon attendance – the students themselves, their parents and staff. But with these strategies now firmly in place, we are proud to say that we have exceeded our overall attendance target of 95 per cent set by the borough this year and our overall absence rates are steadily declining.

The percentage of children who have been persistently absent (for 15 per cent or more sessions) has also steadily declined over the last two years, with the percentage decreasing from seven per cent in 2010 to just 0.6 per cent in 2013.

Furthermore, we have witnessed the effect this is having on attainment – all children who we targeted for persistent absence have made progress or accelerated progress since the last term. 

One child who had an attendance of 62 per cent and started the year on Level 2C for reading is one of these cases – they now have an overall attendance of 91 per cent and their reading level has improved to Level 3A. 

We monitor progress rigorously and these children and their circumstances will continue to be monitored and assessed by the senior leadership team in the future.

Overall, we believe that this improved attendance and attainment will be sustained by the effective strategies we have in place, and we intend to maintain a commitment to improving overall attendance for all groups as a priority for the year ahead.

I believe that children from disadvantaged backgrounds often need much more support than their better off peers. And this simply cannot be done if they are not in school. To close the achievement gap, we need to tackle the issue of attendance, and sometimes this means our work as educators reaches far beyond the classroom.

  • Nadia Jarana is deputy headteacher of Orchard Primary School in Hackney and a graduate of the Future Leaders programme.

Future Leaders

The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging primary and secondary schools across England. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, personalised coaching and peer support through an online network of more than 400 Future Leaders. Applications can be made this term for a 2014 start on the programme. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk

  • For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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