School improvement was once described to me like running up a slippery hill: you put in lots of effort and prepare for the journey, you make good progress, even surpassing the goals that you set out to achieve, only to find yourself sometimes back to where you began and having to start again. It can sometimes feel like that with school attendance.
In the news on 11 February, the BBC reported on a parliamentary debate on the topic of introducing a later start for teenagers in schools. Initiated by Hannah Kidner, from Blundell’s School in Devon, the debate centred on a proposal that the government should require secondary schools to start later, which she maintained would lead to increased productivity at school. The report cited Sir George Monoux VIth Form College, which introduced a 10am start time for students. Its aim was to maximise students’ potential and wellbeing, and to make for a more sociable start to the day.
There is international research that supports late starts for young people in this age group and their positive impact on sleep habits, engagement in school and outcomes. Conversely there are those who would argue the potential for increases punctuality issues and poor preparation for the transition to the workplace, where the expectations are different.
We all agree that attendance to school is important for every child who attends school. However, promoting, improving and sustaining good attendance can be a challenge and one that is dependent upon the context of the school and the challenges that individuals and some communities face.
The biggest challenge?
Attendance is an important part of the education jigsaw, but only one aspect. You can provide the best learning environment, the best curriculum and the best provision in a school/academy but the children must be there to benefit from it. In some cases getting children into school can be the biggest challenge.
One of the most effective strategies that schools have used to improve attendance is making attendance the responsibility of not just one individual but the whole school community. The best strategies ensure that from the moment a child steps into a school their care, guidance and support is shared across the school. This is part of the culture of the school, the way things are done and an important mindset behind nurturing the potential of every child.
Where schools have the capacity and resources to employ staff with the responsibility for monitoring attendance, this requires the support of every member of the school community to ensure that every child attends school as regularly and frequently as they can.
Each school will have their own attendance policies and strategies. Where these have the desired impact, the policy is driven, lived and breathed across the school: all issues are communicated and acted upon and everybody is aware of the improvements, what is working and the differences it makes. While attendance must be strategically driven by senior leadership with a core team, the wider team is crucial to the ongoing success of improving and maintaining positive attendance. The transformation and impact that a positive relationship can have on a child’s attendance can never be underestimated.
In their book As One: Individual Action Collective Power, Mehrdad Baghai and James Quigley promote the principle of working together and its impact on results in an organisation: “As One. It’s a short phrase. Only five letters. But those five letters are filled with meaning and inspiration. They make all the difference between a group of individuals and a unified team. Those five letters symbolise the culmination of individual action into collective power. They describe how individuals can collaborate to achieve extraordinary results − together.”
So many schools work tirelessly to ensure that their school work together as a team, supporting individual children who day by day require the support and nurture of the school environment to get them not only into school but through the school day. Getting to school and engaging can be a challenge, but staying in school and coming back again can be the hardest challenge of all.
With ever-decreasing resources and funding, many schools have had to make difficult choices in terms of priority staffing and resources. Maintaining an attendance officer, a parental engagement officer, a student wellbeing officer or even a pastoral support assistant can be a luxury item that many schools can’t always maintain. The impact of the loss of these personnel can be felt up and down the country.
Relationships with parents and carers
The relationships built up with parents and carers are critical to support the improvement journey of individuals who collectively affect the school’s collective journey. The investment that any school makes in working with them is key to improving attendance. Schools that have:
- a culture of ‘we are all in this together’
- creative approaches such as individual members of staff visiting parents/carers in the community
- safe drop-ins in local community centres to support families who can’t get their children to school or are reluctant to engage with the school
- implemented inspired systems to engage and re-engage families in the dialogue of the importance of attendance
– have seen the impact it can have on individuals. Every school is different and investing in communicating with the community is key.
Familiar strategies Include texts to parents and increasingly texts to students, letters home and direct communications to students. Rewards split opinion: do you reward what is an expectation? Are we rewarded for coming into work, some say? Are rewards sustainable? Is the system focused on everybody? Are you getting the balance right between rewarding improvement and rewarding expectation?
The evidence is clear that attendance to school correlates with successful outcomes. The issue is about what works for an individual school in working together to ensure every child is successful: for some the end point is much further away.
A study in 2018 by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the US found that rewarding attendance made very little difference to improving attendance and maintaining improvements, in fact in some cases it had the opposite impact. The Education Endowment Foundation report Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning (2018) had four recommendations to engage parents:
- Critically review how you work with parents
- Provide practical strategies to support learning at home
- Tailor school communications to encourage positive dialogue about learning
- Offer more sustained and intensive support where needed.
These provide a starting point for wider discussions about how working with parents can be tailored to meet individual schools’ needs. Parents/carers are important stakeholders in the success of every child in every school.
At SSAT our Improving Whole School Attendance and Punctuality Programme provides an opportunity to work with us to evaluate the success of school/academy attendance and punctuality programmes:
Policy and Strategy: Does the policy reflect the aims, ethoss and strategy and systems for attendance and punctuality?
Leadership and Management: Are all staff clear about their roles and responsibilities relating to monitoring and improving attendance and punctuality to school and lessons?
Interventions: How effective are the interventions that are in place to support individuals in improving their attendance and how evident is the impact?
Systems and Procedures: How is attendance monitored and communicated to all stakeholders?
Outcomes: How is attendance data used to help strategic planning and addressing attendance issues?
Monitoring and Evaluation: Who is involved in monitoring and evaluating the overall effectiveness of the strategy?
Parental and Community Engagement: How has the school/academy raised the profile of attendance with parents/carers and the wider community?
Improving attendance is always a core priority. How this is achieved is individual for each school, but working together and owning the priority as a collective has great potential for improving attendance.
As for the parliamentary debate: it closed with no sign of government imposing an edict that local authority schools should introduce a later start to the school day.