Lessons in attendance from special schools  

In the week that the education committee releases its report on persistent absence, Nicola Law shares insights from a sector long used to managing attendance challenges

In the week that the education committee releases its report on persistent absence, Nicola Law shares insights from a sector long used to managing attendance challenges

4 Oct 2023, 5:00

More than a quarter of children in secondary schools and almost a fifth of children in primary schools do not turn up for lessons. The children’s commissioner has called for a national campaign and the education select committee this week launched its report on persistent absence.

Rightly, concern about persistent absence has hit the mainstream, but attendance has always been a challenge for specialist education. The sector has strategies for meeting that challenge that could be useful for every school.

Clarity, consistency and communication

Every school needs a clear, consistent and well-communicated policy that says: we expect children to attend and will address any absence swiftly and robustly.

This changes the expectation of staff, pupils and parents and makes attendance the expected norm – and absence more difficult to excuse.

Monitor data and changes in behaviour

Data alone isn’t the answer, nor sufficiently responsive. A child may have tipped into persistent absence by the time a pattern is noticed, and by then the behaviour will be embedded and hard to change.

We don’t wait for patterns to emerge. We review our attendance tracker weekly and follow up with every child whose attendance has dipped from the previous week. This means we can intervene early and can encourage and affirm any positive change – a crucial part of creating a positive culture of attendance. 

Engagement and curiosity

It’s important to speak to the pupils and their families to unearth potential issues that may make them vulnerable to absence.

During the pandemic we all got used to making phone calls home and having conversations that were invaluable to understanding pupils and their welfare. Continuing with or leaning back into this mindset is invaluable to supporting pupils with their attendance – and more.

Dedicated staff

Recognising that autistic children and young people have complex educational needs, each of our pupils has a key worker who is their safe and trusted point of contact in school. We are also rolling out full-time family liaison officers: non-teaching members of staff able to support meaningful social work with pupils and their families.

This is unlikely to be a solution in mainstream settings, but the key is to drill into the underlying causes of absence and be targeted in addressing any barriers. In our settings this may be as simple, but as important, as the smell of a particular classroom or noise from the corridor. Eradicating these can keep pupils in school. Our experience is that parents’ insights and support provide the kind of intelligence that is critical to success in this regard, as does listening to pupils themselves.

Flexible reintegration

Returning to school after a period of absence is not easy. Led by our key workers and family liaison officers, we devise tailored and flexible programmes to support reintegration.

This may mean home-based tutoring that progresses to one-on-one, in-school learning, before part-time sessions. Or it might mean early-morning or after-school tutoring, when school is quieter and less likely to cause any sensory overload or additional anxiety. We may also capitalise on areas of interest and encourage pupils to return for craft or sport activities first. The key is to be patient and child-centred.

We all know that the safest place for children is school, and that good attendance supports their overall welfare, and social, emotional and academic development. That’s what makes the attendance crisis all the more worrying.

While tackling it is by no means easy in the specialist sector, it is a challenge we are set up to respond to as matter of course. These experiences are more common in specialist schools and the approaches we take are more readily resourced, but they may offer practices that could be replicated more widely.

Nothing will ever be as good for attendance as ensuring every child has the right support at the right school for them, but together we can keep more of our children in school, safe and learning.

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