'Sensible albeit obvious' – Ofsted's attendance advice focuses on the basics

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School leaders have welcomed new Ofsted advice on improving attendance, although have gently pointed out that much of what inspectors have to say on the issue is “obvious”.

The advice urges school leaders to prioritise listening to and supporting parents and pupils and setting high expectations.

School leaders have also pointed to the elephant in the room when it comes to attendance – namely that cuts to local authority and school budgets have led to reduced support from attendance officers and/or reduced funding for often crucial pastoral or SEN support.

The report – Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence (Ofsted, 2022) – distils its advice down to: “Listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate.”

It emphasises persistence and high expectations and urges leaders to ask “questions about what, if anything, they need to do differently to remove barriers to pupils’ attendance”.

Attendance in all state-funded schools currently stands at 89.1 per cent as of February 3, mainly due to Covid-related absence. Indeed, 320,000 pupils were off on that date due to Covid (DfE, 2022).

However, Ofsted’s report points to DfE research last year showing that a fifth of schools were experiencing more attendance issues than usual with family or pupil anxiety about becoming ill or pupil disengagement from education being among the top reasons. A second DfE survey in the autumn term echoed these findings.

Attendance challenges highlighted by Ofsted include “parents keeping children home unnecessarily because of proximity to Covid – a relative or another child in a separate class testing positive, for example”. The report says that some parents are “finding it hard to move on from the ‘bubble-isolation mentality’”.

Inspectors also report that some pupils are attending “sporadically” because of “disaffection following the national lockdowns”.

Other barriers to attendance include pupils who see parents under more stress or facing financial hardship, or pupils from families experiencing domestic violence. Concerns about whether year 11 examinations might be cancelled are also a factor for some.

Ofsted’s report does not mention emotionally based school avoidance, but anecdotally SecEd has discovered that this is a rapidly growing challenge for schools.

A webinar run by SecEd – Headteacher Update's sister magazine – (including associated resources for schools) on the topic in December attracted thousands of delegates seeking advice for supporting pupils too anxious to come to school (the webinar is still available to watch for free).

During the hour-long webinar, delegates described pupils who were too anxious to even leave their bedrooms. One delegate described how simply putting on their school uniform but remaining at home had been a significant achievement for one young person.

Delegates also reported increasing challenges with pupils who make it to school but who cannot attend lessons.

Ofsted’s report does state that more time spent online during lockdowns has “fuelled social anxiety” for some children and young people. And it praises some approaches to tackle anxiety seen by inspectors: “One school let a pupil spend time in school once the school was closed for the day, to overcome her anxiety about being in the building. Another had a staff member meet the pupil in the morning with the school dog. Once the pupil had walked the dog for a short while, they felt able to come in.”

On disengagement from education, the report states: “It appears that the provision of remote education during national lockdowns has negatively affected some pupils’ perceptions of the need to be in school, particularly in secondary schools.

“There is a sense from some pupils, as one leader explained, that ‘you weren’t fussed when we weren’t in school all that time in lockdown and we did our work at home, so why does it matter so much now?”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, echoed the concern: “It is worrying to note a new trend, with some students failing to recognise the crucial importance of being in school as a result of experiencing remote learning at home during the periods of lockdown.”

Other issues include parents not understanding the latest rules about isolation or being generally cautious. Inspectors also emphasise that many reasons for persistent non-attendance are not linked to the pandemic at all, including negative family views of education or chaotic home routines.

Some ‘sensible but obvious’ advice…

The report says that successful attendance strategies do not dismiss pupils’ anxieties, but “sensitively analyse them”. Parental concerns must be “recognised and sympathetically addressed”. It recommends:

  • High expectations for every pupil’s attendance at school, communicating these clearly, strongly, and consistently to parents and pupils.
  • Explaining to parents and pupils why good attendance is important and how it helps pupils to achieve.
  • Listening to parents “carefully” to find out why their children are not attending so that you can act accordingly.
  • Challenging parents who do not make sure that their children attend and offering support where needed.
  • Ensuring that attendance is always recorded accurately and analysed for patterns and trends.
  • Understanding that there is a relationship between attendance and the quality of the school’s curriculum, ethos, behaviour, and inclusivity.

The report, which is based on evidence from recent inspections, highlights some common weaknesses seen by inspectors. These include:

  • Poor or inaccurate recording of attendance.
  • A lack of analysis leading to lack of ability to see patterns.
  • A lack of a coherent strategy.
  • A lack of urgency about when to intervene or challenge – for example not contacting parents about attendance concerns until attendance drops below 90%.

Examples of specific actions in the report to support the most persistent absentees include giving families a wake-up phone call every day, giving pupils special responsibilities to motivate them to come to school, arranging transport to and from school, and making home visits.

However, it also warns that “deeply ingrained” patterns of persistent absence often go much wider than a school alone can deal with and require the involvement of social care professionals and local authority attendance officers.

Mr Barton welcomed the report but admitted the advice within was not ground-breaking: “Ofsted’s findings in this report are sensible, albeit rather obvious. All schools are acutely aware of the factors that affect good attendance and already work very hard to address the issues they come across.”

However, he said the wider problem is that cuts to local authority funding have led to reduced support for schools. Real-terms cuts to school budgets in recent years have also hit the pastoral support that can often be crucial.

Mr Barton added: “Schools strive to minimise the impact of funding pressures but ultimately they can only afford what they can afford. It is also the case that many children face a range of challenges, such as poverty, mental health issues, and SEN which have not been sufficiently addressed and supported by the government, and that all these factors can impact on attendance.”

  • DfE: Week 6: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3rzCYnC
  • Ofsted: Research and analysis: Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3rBGqOz
  • SecEd Webinar: Responding to Emotionally Based School Avoidance, December 2021: https://bit.ly/3LkpOCK

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