Home visits are part of a strong attendance policy

We must have the difficult conversation about parents who don’t play by the rules if we’re going to change the game on attendance

We must have the difficult conversation about parents who don’t play by the rules if we’re going to change the game on attendance

9 Mar 2024, 5:00

It’s fair to say that my social media post sharing our video newsletter for parents caused a flurry of commentary last week. In it, I raised the issue of parents who are choosing to take their children out of school without good reason.

Attendance is an alarming national problem. Politicians, officials and school leaders are all grappling with it. At my school in Doncaster, in 2022/23 more than half the students were persistently absent, and 16.5 per cent were severely absent.

Year to date, our attendance is 85.6 per cent, up 5 percentage points. We’ve got persistent absence down to 37.1 per cent, with severe absence hovering just above the 10 per cent mark. We’ve made significant inroads, but there is still much more to do.

There has been a well-documented shift in societal attitudes towards mandatory school attendance. As a sector, we need to be able to openly discuss the challenges this presents.

The improvement we are seeing tells us that more children are wanting to attend school. I strongly believe this is because we have made clear that we are here for them and that we want the best for them and their future.

We have a really strong partnerships with the vast majority of families; they understand the importance of attending school every day. For another group of parents, attendance is really challenging because of wider issues. We know these issues have become more acute as wider funding for support services has fallen away and we do everything we can to support them.

But there’s another group of parents who are choosing to keep their child out of school and not giving us a reason for that, or giving us misleading reasons like claiming their child is ill when they are not. 

As difficult as it is, we need to openly discuss these behaviours

Fundamentally, our mission is to ensure children are safe. If we’ve not seen a child for a few days, we have a responsibility to check they are alright.  What we’re doing is not unique; it’s simply us checking to make sure our students are okay and finding ways to get them back into school as quickly as possible.

The significant majority of our attendance challenges relate to these unauthorised absences. We’ve been very open with our families that as well as celebrating good attendance, we will call this out.

Our attendance team, like other such teams up and down the country, routinely make home visits as a core part of their work. In the course of this important work, they notice things like whether there is any activity in the house and around the house.

We do this because we care passionately about our students. We want them to be in school, not just because keeping them on track with their learning is crucial, but because keeping them safe is vital. School is too often a child’s only safe place; when that falls away without a proper reason, it’s right that our staff look into it.

We’ve had parents impersonating a doctor’s surgery, going as far as falsifying text messages purporting to be from a medical practice. Often, parents will say that they’ll bring the evidence the next day, and then do not. This is unauthorised absence, and often it is the same children being removed multiple times.

As difficult as it is to raise these issues, if we are really serious about the extent of the challenge then we need to make clear that this is simply not acceptable. 

And it does seem to be making a difference. Social media commentary aside, talking about this publicly alongside our wider focus on attendance means previously persistent absentees are increasingly back in school .

More generally, our attendance is improving. Our roll for September looks set to be the largest the school has ever seen. These are positive signs about a school that is making progress in tackling tough challenges that are all too commonplace in communities like ours.

But we need to build on that, and that includes having difficult conversations about what needs to change. 

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