Conferences aside, attendance remains the hottest topic in education. In 2021/22, the overall absence rate was 7.6 per cent, up from around 4 to 5 per cent before the pandemic. In its report into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils, the education select committee concluded that Covid and its aftermath has had a damaging effect on school attendance. This is especially worrying for children who already had a significant chunk of their learning disrupted by lockdowns.
I am proud that our attendance levels are higher than the national average for all learners. The Fischer Family Trust have just given us a National School Attendance Award for being in the top ten per cent of similar schools in England for attendance.
These outcomes are down to the varied and collective approaches my team of staff use, including our learning culture, behaviour expectations and focused attendance clinics. There is no panacea when it comes to solving the attendance crisis. However, I believe the value of learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom are being overlooked when it comes to keeping children coming through the school gates.
From getting out of the habit to a more cautious culture after Covid, and from rising costs to squeezed budgets, there are many reasons why schools have backed away from school trips. Indeed, NFER research for the Sutton Trust finds that 50 per cent of heads say they have had to cut back due to funding, up from 21 per cent last year.
However, embracing all the learning opportunities found off site is an important tool to motivate children and young people to attend school. Children do not come to school to sit in one place for endless rote learning. It is our job to make what they need to learn both exciting and memorable. External visits and inviting opportunities in school are key to this. By linking cultural experiences to the curriculum, we can complement and supplement teaching in all subjects.
The classic theatre trip is one all schools should be running. We recently organised a trip to watch The Lion King musical, on tour from the West End, making sure to widen the participation for the trip so that our disadvantaged children could benefit. For some of them, it was their first time at the theatre.
As part of our computer science curriculum, our learners experience the Enigma Machine at Bletchley Park. This allows them to fully appreciate the scope and ramifications of what they are learning in the context of history and prompts them to reflect more widely on the subject at hand.
Our teachers have commented that young people are more engaged in what they are learning when it is connected to a real-life, out-of-classroom experience and that they continue to talk about the trips they have been on. Our learners have also shared that regular trips make them look forward to coming to school as they do not want to miss out on anything.
In its report, the education select committee noted that they had heard compelling evidence about the positive impact local sports-based interventions to improve attendance. They recommend that the department for education commission research to test the link between these and improved attendance.
I would like to see the government research the link between school trips and attendance, especially as the report also highlighted concerns about a decline in enrichment activities. They noted that £1 billion less had been spent on youth services in the past decade, and that measures such as arts, drama and music could also be used to reduce absences.
Children need to attend school every day in order to fully benefit from a well thought-out curriculum and develop a lifelong passion for learning. I hope other schools will refocus on the cultural capital accrued by trips going forward. I am convinced that it is one of the most important ways to make sure young people keep coming to school.