Attendance is an issue, but it is never the issue

The answer to poor attendance is simple but implementing it is neither quick nor easy, explains Jonathan Roe

The answer to poor attendance is simple but implementing it is neither quick nor easy, explains Jonathan Roe

13 Jun 2023, 5:00

So, Ofsted have told you that “leaders should ensure that the number of pupils who are persistently absent reduces”, yet have offered no advice on how you may achieve better attendance.

You have attended every DfE webinar going, and have sought the advice of the regional team.

Your trust runs monthly attendance surgeries at which you discussed a live case from your school. You seem to be doing everything that everyone else is doing.

You have recently had local authority scrutiny, and everyone’s scratching their heads.

And in spite of all of that, persistent absence is still refusing to budge. Why?

In my experience, most schools are already doing all the nuts-and-bolts stuff: high expectations, clear lines of accountability, rigorous application of policy and procedure, wisely interrogating data, working collaboratively. But those who are most successful are doing all of this within the environment of supportive and empathic relationships with pupils and families, established over many years.

Take our own Chiltern Primary School in Hull, for example. It serves one of the most challenging communities in England; 99 per cent of pupils are in the top quintile for deprivation.

This may not bode well for attendance, but year-to-date attendance in this challenging community is higher than the England average, and persistent absence lower than the England average, and that’s been the school’s track record for many years.

People are central to this success. Assistant headteacher, Claire Lundie leads the school’s work on attendance and inclusion, alongside Lisa Greig, the school’s deputy safeguarding lead. Their  mantra is that ‘attendance is an issue, never the issue’, which speaks to the fact that her poorest attenders are often from families that are facing multiple challenges.

And so the school gets involved in establishing tangible, supportive relationships via a weekly school food bank that regularly has 80 queuing from 8.30 each Thursday morning.

Great attendance doesn’t happen overnight

Claire also coordinates wellbeing action plans where pupil, parent and school sit together to work out what will make a difference in the child’s life. This week, six such meetings are planned. Claire believes that every child with poor attendance has a reason unique to themselves, with the school and family needing to figure out the unique solution for that child.

The school uses the ‘parent and carer engagement in child mental health’ resources from the Anna Freud Centre to great effect. Six families are currently involved and past experience shows that they want to carry on talking about improving their child’s experience of family and school, well after the support course finishes.

From all of this work we conclude that great attendance is built on high quality relationships, based on trust that has been built up over many years.  Claire believes that these relationships are relational capital that can be drawn upon when difficult conversations need to happen around attendance.

When the school needs to say ‘this must improve’, the chance of gaining a positive response is higher because families know that the school cares and that the school will do all it can to support the family. When the school calls to say ‘Mrs Lundie will be at your front door in ten minutes to collect your child’ (with Lucky, the therapy dog), the chances of that child being ready, waiting, and in school uniform are high.

The DfE’s most recent guidance on attendance, Working together to improve school attendance, states that “schools should treat all pupils and parents with dignity and staff should model respectful relationships to build a positive relationship between home and school that can be the foundation of good attendance”.

What we know is that this isn’t achieved overnight. It takes time. Lots of time. Trust is hard-won over many years as a school shows that it is consistently and doggedly there for people and follows through on its support promises.

All this implies that resources should be targeted at building these relationships, and here’s the rub for government. Great attendance doesn’t happen overnight, and can’t be delivered on a shoestring.

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One comment

  1. Patrick Obikwu

    In his seminal book Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Professor Amartya Sen elaborated on how and why development is far more than just economic growth. By the same argument, education needs to be expanded beyond the arid focus of just passing exams to more of attaining a measure of freedom. A diverse and enriching curriculum with far more activities to engage students will create this freedom mindset and make school more attractive thereby improve attendance.
    During my 6 years as a form tutor in a very large comprehensive school in London, my form class consistently had the highest attendance. High attendance to school translated into high academic achievement of my form students in all their subjects. What did I do? During morning form time, I engaged my form students in daily discussions on a wide range of local, global, personal, and life issues and related these to their education and goals. I made them view their education with a divergent lens (expanding their horizons towards attaining freedom) and not a convergent lens (fixated on exams which restrict freedom). Even recalcitrant, unrepentant, and persistent absentees prior to my becoming the form tutor, made dramatic changes when I became the form tutor. These students started attending school punctually and regularly and all their lessons too. And their lives changed forever.
    It is about building relationships, showing empathy, and making schools and classrooms a more engaging and interesting place for students. School authorities should find ways to make schools more attractive and student attendance will increase. QED.