How to drive up attendance in your school

24 Oct 2023, 5:00

I have been in education for 23 years and leading on attendance for 15 of those across schools of every type. Leadership of attendance has never been more complex than now.

We can debate what has led to a sense that school is now no longer mandatory at length, but the problem is not going away anytime soon.

We need to pool our collective experiences to share what works. At E-ACT we’ve managed to reduce our persistent absenteeism by ten percentage points compared to this time last year. So, for what it’s worth, here’s what is working for us.

Talk about it. Write about it. Shout about it

Raise the profile of attendance at every level of the organisation from the board (as a standing agenda item) right through to parents and carers. Communication is key to ensuring the importance of good attendance is woven through the culture of each academy.

Know your context inside out

Leaders need to really understand context, barriers and challenges. For us, this is about valuing diversity and celebrating the strengths of individual academies. This ranges from building relationships with families through our community hubs where financial, mental health and employment support is available, to coffee morning drop-in sessions where families can speak to staff about the challenges they face.

Inclusion for all is a priority of our ‘Opening Minds, Opening Doors’ strategy. By engaging families and establishing strong relationships, some of our academies have reduced persistent absence by eight percentage points.  

Data, data, data

Without data you are flying blind. We have developed key performance indicators which monitor attendance session by session, day by day so that we can identify sub-groups and intervene early.

More broadly, our weekly attendance reports are copied to all leaders. These look at data forensically, breaking it down and comparing to local authority and national trends. We don’t set a uniform expectation, but we do use target setting intelligently.

Being digital is a key enabler. This ranges from ensuring systems are joined up and information readily available to using AI and other technologies to identify and predict patterns.

Networks of advocates

Our trust ethos is that collaboration leads to the very best outcomes. We learn from each other through our specialist networks and assurance boards. We have them for learning, curriculum and performance among others. Our attendance network brings attendance leads from all over the country together to address contextual barriers and shape policy and practice.

This is priceless. One initiative we co-created as a result of this approach was a common attendance script for all staff in our academies. It is tailored according to context, but helps staff respond to the most common reasons for absence, ensuring a consistent approach based on the most effective practices.

Tighten the thresholds

We have a robust policy and a trust-wide graduated response which engages families through a supportive approach. But when I first focused on these, I felt the triggers were too late in the process; the actions were right, but not timely enough to prevent absence from becoming persistent. We have since tightened thresholds to trigger intervention sooner.

This does mean schools need more capacity to deal with case work, but the truth is that if it really matters, then it really matters. You make it work. And of course, intervening early can reduce workload downstream.

Each threshold is linked to a supportive action that involves the voices of child, family and school. Our academies put appropriate support in place and rigorously monitor the child’s attendance, providing further personalised support if required. 

The challenges we face are no different from those faced by any other school. Some of our schools have had to implement a real step-change in culture and how they address absenteeism. We have re-engineered the support we give them accordingly, and we’re starting to see the fruits of our efforts.

The strategic role I play is one example of how academy trusts can prioritise this issue. We now need the same strategic leadership at a national level to make attendance not only compulsory but desirable again.

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