Parents of “poor attenders” may be using “possible Covid” as an excuse for not sending their children to school, Ofsted has warned.
The schools watchdog today published a new report outlining the challenges schools currently face and steps they can take to remedy poor attendance.
It comes after education secretary Nadhim Zahawi commissioned a deep-dive by Ofsted and the Department for Education into absenteeism last year.
The new report highlights how pupil and parent anxiety are among the main driving forces behind higher-than-normal absences in schools, while remote education has “negatively affected” some pupils’ perceptions of the need to be in school.
The latest government attendance data showed attendance in state-funded schools fell to 87.4 per cent on January 20, with around 415,000 pupils off for Covid-related reasons.
Ofsted’s report found that schools with improving attendance had set high expectations for pupils’ attendance and communicated them clearly, while applying the principle of “listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate”.
What is causing low attendance?
A survey of Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) during the 2021 autumn term revealed positive Covid cases were still the most common reason for high pupil absences – with 68 per cent of HMIs finding this to be the case in all or most inspections.
However, Ofsted said leaders had “also described situations where ‘possible Covid’ appears to be used as an excuse by some families whose children are usually poor attenders”.
In these instances, leaders “strongly encourage” families to test their children, but this does not always happen, resulting in pupils being absent for 10 days.
Some parents also believe remote education “can be provided for non-Covid-related circumstances, such as being on holiday, which leaders have to explain is not the case”.
However, genuine anxiety about the pandemic is also a big issue reported by inspectors.
Around 8 in 10 HMIs reported parental anxiety was a contributing factor to higher than normal absences in some or most inspections.
Schools found parents were keeping children at home “necessarily because of proximity to Covid” or to isolate before a family event such as a wedding.
The provision of remote education has also “negatively affected” some pupils’ perceptions of the need to be in school, inspectors found.
Social media, exams and anti-vaxxers driving anxiety
Pupil anxiety was cited as the third most common reason for low attendance.
Ofsted explained this may not be directly related to school, but to experiences during the pandemic such as concern for ill family members, parents under higher stress than normal, domestic violence or financial hardship.
Older pupils also fear the cancellation of exams or further lockdowns may impact their future.
School leaders also reported how “more time spent online over the successive national lockdowns has fuelled social anxiety”.
While not directly linked to school, this affects pupils’ mental health “and then their attendance suffers accordingly”.
One school described how primary-age pupils were “very upset by ‘anti-vaxxer’ protests outside the school” and a “great deal of work” had to be done to alleviate their concerns.
How should schools improve attendance?
Only around a quarter of inspectors reported that those responsible for governance were “consistently setting a clear direction for leaders on promoting attendance and challenging absence”.
Data is highlighted as a key component is addressing attendance issues, and schools must ensure it is “always recorded accurately”. This follows the launch by the government of a real-time attendance tracker to cut absences.
Schools are advised to “systematically analyse attendance information” in order to notice patterns of absence. For example, high rates of Monday absences could be related to what is happening at home over the weekend.
Ofsted heard examples of schools that tackled persistent absence by 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.
The report states schools should clearly communicate and explain to parents and pupils why good attendance is important.
But schools must also listen to parents to understand why pupils may not be attending and take action to remedy this, the inspectorate said.
In one example, parents running late were “too embarrassed” to drop off their children, so kept them off for a whole day instead.
And in some ‘inadequate’-rated schools there was a “lack of urgency” to challenge poor attendance, with parents not contacted until it dropped below 90 per cent.
In contrast, schools that successfully improve attendance make sure it is “everyone’s business” and an “ongoing process” that is never finished.