Attendance: Easy policy solutions are no longer enough

Our attendance woes won’t be solved by doing more of the same in the hopes of returning to the ‘old normal’

Our attendance woes won’t be solved by doing more of the same in the hopes of returning to the ‘old normal’

20 Jan 2024, 5:00

Nationally, more than 140,000 pupils currently have attendance below 50 per cent and over 86,000 families are electively home-educating their children. One in four pupils is now regularly missing school, and school leaders are desperate for proven strategies to help them improve attendance. But is it time to start again and rethink our whole approach?

The government’s approach is clearly not helping, but the Labour Party’s plan looks equally lacklustre. Most schools already run breakfast clubs. Ofsted already report on attendance. All schools have robust attendance systems and policies, developed over years, that include clear communication with families, clear expectations and actions, thorough data, an intimate understanding of context and collaboration with other schools and leaders.

These actions, coupled with a relentless focus from the school, can have a positive impact –  but they are plainly not enough.

Our whole-school attendance has been a challenge for as long as I can remember. With targeted care and support, we have had success with is our SEN Support cohort, whose attendance is above national average in all key stage 3 year groups, and our pupils with EHCPs, whose attendance is above national average in all year groups (and 11.3 per cent above in Year 9). But despite the best efforts of our dedicated teams, our attendance still sits just below national average.

We have high numbers of disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEND. For some, and especially the most vulnerable, the pandemic experience has certainly played a part in their lack of social development and the rise in mental health problems among them. However, the list of other factors impacting on attendance seems endless: parental unemployment, embedded behaviours from primary school, lack of aspirations at home – not to mention the introduction of the ULEZ charge.

Last week , a year 7 pupil arrived two minutes after our 8.30am start. She’d left home at 6.15 and walked 12 minutes before catching two buses from near Heathrow airport. Traffic aside, one bus had broken down and another had driven past her. And there I was reminding her about the importance of good punctuality.

Maybe, just maybe it’s time to start again with attendance

She’s not alone. Many of our pupils live at least 20 minutes or more away from the school by public transport – in part a legacy of our previously poor reputation. Often, the one parent who lives at home is already at work when the pupil wakes up.

This young person has all the characteristics you might wish for from a pupil: kindness, care and thoughtfulness, respect, safe and sensible behaviour, an independent and resilient personality – as well as a clear understanding of the importance of attendance and punctuality.

And yet here I was challenging her for arriving late and, as per the school policy, recording the minutes for her end-of-term report. Had she been 20 minutes later, this would have impacted her attendance and potentially triggered a meeting with home.

Before anyone attacks me, I made sure she was looked after and ate breakfast. I also informed her parent and got her into assembly just behind everyone else.

Of the 30 pupils with the lowest attendance at Oak Wood, four have a child protection plan, three have a key worker, 18 have a SEND diagnosis, 24 are disadvantaged and more than half come from single-parent families. Every single one deserves our support, not punishment.

So maybe it isn’t the pandemic that has caused this sudden desire for everyone to stay at home. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve all forgotten the collective role we play in ensuring every child attends school: not just schools and families but the local authority, the bus company and ministers too.

And maybe, just maybe it’s time to start again with how we approach the problem.

Can we move away from the 6-week summer break and spread this out across the year? 45 days without seeing our most vulnerable pupils troubles me every summer.  What about a 4-day school week? Could a more flexible approach to working in schools and how schools themselves operate mean families could afford holidays without impacting attendance?

None of this would be easy to deliver, but the easy policy solutions aren’t hitting the spot.

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