How small changes can make a big impact on attendance

Focusing on the interactions every student experiences could transform how the most persistently absent feel about school

Focusing on the interactions every student experiences could transform how the most persistently absent feel about school

3 Dec 2023, 5:00

If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember the time when there were certain films everyone watched. My childhood started with ET, and graduated to Top Gun, Forest Gump, Groundhog Day, The Truman Show… As we grew up together, they became iconic reference points in the collective psyche.

Sliding Doors was one of these.

A 25-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow played out two parallel lives: one as a frazzled, pigtailed waitress with a cheating scumbag of a boyfriend, the other as a successful entrepreneur with a confident pixie cut, wooed by a hilarious-yet-deeply-sensitive John Hannah.

These two divergent realities hinge on a single moment: one version of Helen catches the train (and consequently her cheating boyfriend), the other misses it.

Forget the rom-com plot for a second and think a little deeper – because that’s what this film made you do. It transported the audience to a mesmeric state, reflecting on all those ‘what if’ moments where the most insignificant action could have switched you into a different future.

Through our work with over 300 schools, we have seen that often it’s the little things that make a big difference. Take Jodie.

On our inclusive leadership course, we ask leaders to choose one thing about their school to focus on as a project. Jodie Cawte, co-headteacher at Invicta Primary school chose attendance.

She decided to ask the question: for children who are persistently missing school, what small behavioral changes might we be able to make that would make them more likely to attend?

Like many schools, Invicta had a good system for monitoring attendance, based on a ladder of consequences. At The Difference, we are interested in the practice that sits in between the rungs of that ladder and allows a system to achieve its ends. (To state the obvious, the end goal of an attendance system is to get pupils attending school – not to escalate them up the ladder!)

These interactions merit attention, precisely because they are small

Questions Jodie asked her staff were, “What is the first interaction a child has with each member of staff when they return to school after an absence? What does it make them feel like, and how would we want it to make them feel?”

Off the back of that question, school leaders set about designing a scripted practice for all staff from the receptionist to the headteacher to deliberately make children feel a sense of belonging from their very first interactions with an adult on returning to school. They tried it across a whole cohort for a half term.

Staff were so impressed with the impact of this small change on making children feel safe in school that they started to use the practice successfully in different interactions, such as returning to a classroom after being sent out, or after an intervention.

As a result of this work, persistent absence figures improved significantly (from 20 per cent to 13.6 per cent) in a year when national rates were rising steeply (from 19.5 per cent to 24.2 per cent). Overall attendance also saw a small improvement, while dropping by two percentage points nationally.

These interactions merit attention, precisely because they are small changes that require very little training and no additional expertise. It’s understandable that our attention will be drawn to the children already at the top of the ladder – and to the most challenging of behaviours. But by focusing on those lower down, we can enlist all staff – not just specialists – to shift the course of a child’s trajectory.

I have a love-hate relationship with the ending of Sliding Doors, which intimates that Helen and James were fated to meet, whatever path she took. But its underlying message of hope is what stuck with me – especially through all the years I’ve worked in schools.

Of course, there’s not only one moment that counts; staff have multiple opportunities for low-key interactions that could ultimately change the course of a child’s life.

My question to school leaders is this: are you willing to develop whole-school relational practices to help all children feel safe and happy in school?

The IncludEd annual conference on 13th January 2024 in London will explore this issue in more depth, alongside other topics related to inclusion and exclusion.

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