Boost attendance and tackle persistent absence: Six recommendations

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

We must “ask and listen”, meeting children where they are, and ensure any exclusions trigger intervention if we are to tackle the rising levels of persistent absence.

An attendance audit conducted by the children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza has listed six ambitions with a range of related recommendations for schools and wider education to help boost attendance.

Her report reminds us that in autumn 2021, one in four children were persistently absent from school compared to one in nine in 2018/19 (pre-pandemic).

She spells out the range of problems that can lead to children missing school, including bullying, mental health issues, poor physical health, being a young carer, and poor SEND provision among others.

Her attendance audit, which saw “deep dives” in 10 local authority areas, estimated that as many as 1.8 million children and young people are missing from education or persistently absent.

Recent government figures have backed this up, showing that 1.7 million were persistently absent in autumn 2021 (compared to 916,000 children in autumn 2020).

Dame Rachel has now launched a new Back into School portal on which she intends to publish resources for schools and others working with children to support attendance. Among the report’s six ambitions are the following recommendations:

Ambition 1: Ask, Listen, Communicate: Decisions about children’s education need to be made with children, their families and other adults in their lives

The report states: “Children said that they often feel that things are done to them rather than with them, which can lead to a breakdown of trust and disengagement from their education.

“Where children do feel listened to, they are able to build relationships with teachers and school staff which they really value. These relationships are often key to making sure children stay engaged in their education.”

Schools are urged to “create a culture which prioritises and obsesses about attendance and promotes this message among children and parents”.

The priority should be to build trusted relationships with children and their families. Attendance and behaviour policy documents should also have a version that is accessible and in child-friendly language.

Ambition 2: Meet children where they are: All children receive support in school, through families of schools

The report states: “Children have told us that they want to receive support in school, be it for mental health, SEND, bullying or safeguarding needs. This is because they value schools as part of their community and life. They trust their teachers. And where support is provided in schools, those children are happier than the overall cohort. “

Schools are urged to provide a range of early support services, such as in-house counselling.

Ambition 3: Exclusion as a trigger for intervention: Children should receive a fantastic education, regardless of setting, always and receive targeted support following exclusion or suspension

The report states: “Exclusions need to be a last resort. However, when they do occur, whether this is an internal exclusion, a fixed-term suspension or permanent exclusion, too often the children we spoke with had not received any intervention or support to prevent further exclusions … or to make sure that exclusion from school didn’t mean exclusion from education altogether. This can lead to a cycle of continued exclusions and children falling out of school.”

It continues: “Where schools saw an exclusion as a moment for intervention and the reasoning behind decisions was explained to the young person and parents, children felt more supported and able to reflect on their behaviour and reengage with their education.”

The report urges that when a child is removed from the classroom, whether through internal exclusion, suspension, permanent exclusion, a managed move, or implementation of a part-time timetable, an “assessment of what support or intervention might be needed is undertaken and that support be implemented quickly to limit the time out of education”.

Ambition 4: Letting children be children: No child should feel that they need to miss school to support or care for their family

The report states: “Children with additional responsibilities at home, such as young carers, can find it particularly difficult to attend school regularly. Young carers attending schools who understood their needs and put in place additional support such as a young carers champion felt more positive about their education and found it easier to balance their home and school lives.”

Schools are urged to implement a young carers policy, co-written with the young carers themselves, to set out expectations and ensure there is a “codified offer for support”.

Ambition 5: Attendance is everyone’s business: School leaders have a relentless focus on attendance and work together with local authorities to ensure children are supported to be in school and to attend regularly

The report states:We need better join up between services that support children, especially those at risk of becoming missing from education or who are otherwise vulnerable. Attendance needs to be everyone’s business, with all services responsible for safeguarding children taking ownership and contributing to solutions. Multi-agency panels which convene schools, the local authority, health, police and others on a regular basis help to ensure that children are known to services and introduce accountability across areas of responsibility.”

Ambition 6: No more ‘known unknowns’: Lack of information should no longer be the reason why children are not receiving a suitable education:

The report states: “We need to address the lack of data collected about children in school and find more effective ways of doing this. Children sometimes fall through the gaps in the system and out of sight simply because the local authority is not even aware that they are living in the area. The lack of information collected on children, coupled with complicated data sharing practices means that children become ‘known unknowns’ and therefore cannot be provided with support.”

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