School attendance: How we’re tackling pupil absence in our trust

When I came to my current school nearly five years ago, attendance was well below 90 per cent. A previous inspection report stated that “attendance is falling and remains well below the national average. School data for this academic year indicates that over a third of pupils in Years 9, 10 and 11 are persistently absent from school.”

As a team, we worked incredibly hard to address this and through relentless communication, home visits and building positive relationships with parents, we finally pushed attendance above national averages.  

And then the pandemic happened.

Our attendance has dropped again, below what we are comfortable with. Yet we are still average when compared with local and national statistics, because the whole country has been affected.

Many of the historical causes of low attendance remain: parents keeping children off when they aren’t really that poorly, or for longer than needed; non-urgent medical appointments; children not really wanting to go in; cheaper term-time holidays; and so on. But since the pandemic, attendance has become even more complex and, therefore, difficult to fix.

School attendance: the reasons behind absence

Every school’s context is different, but some of the newer reasons for a decline in attendance now include emotionally based school avoidance. This is being fuelled, post-pandemic, by a surge in mental health issues for children and their families, with already-groaning support systems completely unable to cope. 

We see parents working from home not pushing their children to attend on these days. Meanwhile, the cost-of-living crisis determines whether parents can afford the bus fare, school lunches (if children are not eligible for free meals), replacement uniform or even to wash the uniform. 

I am also aware of some young people being expected to care for younger siblings so parents can go out to work.

When former education secretary Michael Gove floated the idea of removing child benefit from parents whose children are persistently absent, those of us working in schools collectively rolled our eyes. We already have fines and many other sticks to beat children and parents with – but they just aren’t working. 

For a parent with a child so terrified of attending school that they’ve vomited and locked themselves in the bathroom, the fear of losing £21.80 per week doesn’t quite cut it. It’s also not much of a deterrent if you need your child to stay home and care for younger siblings so you don’t lose your job. 

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Tackling all of this isn’t easy. But working with other professionals across our multi-academy trust, particularly Mark Goodwin, director of behaviour and wellbeing, we decided to identify the causes of absence in individual cases and do what we could to help. Mark is working with senior leaders and the attendance team to robustly monitor, support and intervene with families experiencing difficulties.

The Mercian Trust has also facilitated releasing me temporarily from my day-to-day responsibilities as a headteacher to work more closely with the community to strengthen ties.

For some children, the gaps that opened up during the pandemic just seem too huge to close. Frankly, how can calling these children and their parents into school for a telling-off really help? Will it make a massive difference other than the school being able to tick off the fact that a meeting has been arranged, even if no one turned up to it?

Providing mentors and tutors

Instead, we have channelled some of our funding into providing mentors and tutors to work with these families far more directly: in their homes, if invited in, or in neutral venues if not. We have an arrangement with a local organisation called Life in the Community, which help us here. If children do not feel ready to come into school, we will work with them somewhere else until they are ready to try stepping back through the door, even for short periods of time. 

We gently coax them back into classrooms, supported by familiar adults, until they feel confident enough to keep going by themselves. Further in-school mentoring and interventions are put in place for those struggling to focus on learning and staying in lessons even if they are turning up every day. 

From September we are hoping to work in collaboration with the town’s other secondary school and nearby primary partners to extend this work further. After all, we share the same families and frequently find children bouncing between us. 

In addition to shared tutors and mentors, we hope to expand the team to include youth and family workers and counsellors. 

Most importantly, we are networking and signposting to fantastic community-based agencies that are already supporting families. It’s only through going out to families in genuine partnership that we can overcome those seemingly insurmountable barriers to school.

Keziah is executive headteacher of Q3 Academy Tipton, part of The Mercian Trust. She is co-founder and a strategic lead of WomenEd, and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable

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