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9 June 2022
By Kate Wilson - Senior Improvement Adviser (East Kent)

Improving Attendance - Principles for Success

Estimated Reading Time - 9 minutes

Reducing rates of absence in primary schools has long posed challenges for school leaders. Encouraging regular attendance in primary aged children inevitably involves identifying the deterrents, not just for children but also for their parents. These can be multifaceted, and their complexity has only increased over the last couple of years as we continue to navigate through the impact of the pandemic with partial school closures, quarantine, high Covid rates, new variants, re-booked holidays – to name just a few of the hindrances.

School leaders are now faced with wading through an abundance of recently published research and guidance to establish an effective strategy to re-engage children and families with regular school attendance.

In this blog I will share my 5 Top Tips for improving attendance, aligning principles to the current guidance, to tackle the barriers and bring about change.

1. Build a Whole School Culture

It is essential to build a culture of shared responsibility for attendance. Attendance and absence management should be a high priority for schools, led by senior leaders, owned by all. This principle is reinforced by the latest DfE guidance Working together to improve school attendance Guidance for maintained schools, academies, independent schools, and local authorities (non-mandatory from September 2022 but expected to become mandatory from September 2023).

The new guidance states, as the minimum expectation, that training for all staff should include understanding of:

  • the importance of good attendance and that absence is almost always a symptom of wider circumstances
  • the law and requirements of schools including on the keeping of registers
  • procedures for tracking, following up and improving attendance
  • the processes for working with other partners to provide more intensive support to pupils who need it.

This is in addition to the tailored attendance training provided to any staff with a specified attendance responsibility in their role, including administrative, pastoral or family support staff and senior leaders.

But building a culture where attendance is everybody’s business is more than this. It’s about raising the profile throughout the school community so that there is a shared understanding and ownership of the school, class and individual attendance data. It’s also about encouraging conversations, developing a shared, consistent language, explicitly linking attendance to learning. It’s about raising the profile through planned whole school and class activities. In short, everyone should lead and model the importance of good attendance.

Attendance is Everybody's Business!

2. Identifying the Underlying Causes

The recent Ofsted research report (Ofsted Securing Good Attendance and tackling persistent absence February 2022) recommends listening to parents to find out the reasons for poor attendance. Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector of Education, emphasises the principle, “listen, understand, empathise and support - but do not tolerate".

Long standing barriers may exist for some families, which they may camouflage by withdrawal, or by defensive or confrontational behaviours. For some families there may be cultural, socio-economic or family factors that affect their attitudes to attendance. For example, families may be struggling with travel to school or juggling their work commitments to bring their children to and from school. They could have difficulty managing their child’s behaviour or reluctance to come to school. Some parents may lack awareness or understanding of the law and others may have negative views of the education system because of their own experiences.

New challenges have arisen due to the pandemic including the anxiety of children and parents, pupils disengaging from education during the pandemic, and difficulties readjusting to the ‘living with Covid’ policy. Several schools that I work with have reported a significant shift in parental attitudes to school, with increased disaffection following periods of national lockdown; this was also identified in the Ofsted research report.

The reasons for poor attendance are varied and may be multi-layered, requiring sensitive and detailed unpicking. Positive relationships with parents are essential and an important factor is deciding who is best placed to build that initial relationship, to listen, so that barriers can be removed. This may vary on an individual basis and may not always be the headteacher or attendance officer, it could be a trusted class teacher, pastoral worker of teaching assistant.

The key to deciphering the underlying cause is sensitive listening and responding.

Know Your Families!

3. Communicate Your Expectations

Communication is integral to your plans to raise the profile and encourage good attendance. The Ofsted research report stresses the importance of having ‘high expectations for every pupil's attendance at school and communicating these expectations clearly, strongly and consistently to both parents and pupils.

It’s essential that your messages to all stakeholders remain clear, consistent and continuous. Communication takes place through the attendance policy, leaflets, newsletters, home/school agreements, assemblies, displays, staff briefings and INSET. And of course, through all your daily, regular and occasional conversations.

Be clear about your expectations and processes such as term time leave, requesting absence, evidence required for absences, how to access to wider support services, when intervention starts (for example below 95% attendance) and when support will be formalised. Make clear the start and close of the day, register closing times and the processes for requesting leaves of absence and informing the school of the reason for an unexpected absence.

You will be judged as ‘unfair’ unless everyone applies the policy consistently, so it is essential that everyone follows the stated school day times and school processes. Think about your school clocks – are they synchronised so that everyone can follow the same time? Consider an outside School Clock to avoid debates about the accurate time on arrival. Use templates or guides to keep staff conversations with parents consistent, for example prompts for recording absence calls and an agreed script about attendance for parent consultation meetings.

Clear, Consistent Communication!

4. Carefully Consider Incentives

The DfE guidance Improving School Attendance: support for schools and local authorities suggests that school leaders may consider implementing rewards for attendance and punctuality. Throughout my career in schools I have experienced, designed and reviewed a multitude of reward systems for attendance with varying degrees of success. School leaders should carefully consider the value of their chosen incentives, thinking about what could, and couldn’t work, in their own school community. Chosen approaches should be regularly monitored and evaluated for impact, both positive and negative.

Primary schools are frequently creative and innovative in designing their incentive systems, which can often foster enthusiastic competition and excited anticipation amongst pupils, staff and parents. The idea that pupils can be persuaded to sustain good attendance through extrinsic sources of motivation underlies these attendance rewards systems. But consideration should also be given to the disincentive impact of some of these approaches. For example, what about the child who doesn’t receive a 100% attendance award because of a scheduled operation? Or the impact of excluding a child from a good attendance event when we know it is the parent’s anxiety that is the root cause of the attendance issue? We could be in danger of further alienating some families and increasing their disaffection with school.

There is limited evidence of the impact of attendance interventions, although promising areas have been identified in parental communication approaches (EEF Rapid evidence assessment on attendance interventions March 2022). ‘Nudge Theory’, which has grown in use across a range of public sector areas, has been successfully adopted in some schools. This theory operates on the idea that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions are effective ways to influence behaviour and decision making. Schools adopting this approach link pupil attendance to learning, for example sending a text like, “We’re really looking forward to seeing (NAME) in school today. Year 1 are making smoothies and this will really help them with their writing later this week.”

School leaders will have many examples of incentives that have worked for their school communities. For successful implementation, remember to promote and apply rewards consistently and celebrate progress.

Don't Let Incentives become Disincentives!

5. Record and Monitor Attendance Regularly

My final tip is short and simple – record absence accurately so you can make good use of your data to inform your decisions at individual, group, class and school level. The recent Ofsted research found that accurate recording and sensitive analysis of attendance is an essential tool in targeting effective action to improve attendance, and that how well schools are dealing with current attendance challenges is related to the approach, systems and structures that they already had in place.

Review your attendance systems to ensure they provide a tracking and targeting system to identify children whose attendance is a concern, highlight gaps between groups, and identify patterns for different types of absence. Monitor your attendance patterns weekly, look beyond the headline data so that individual barriers and anxieties can be reduced through sensitive discussion and intervention. Share data and action with your staff team so that all efforts are focused on support and improvement.

Use Data to Inform and Improve!

Being faced with a plethora of new guidance and research can feel overwhelming and burdensome but the principles remain constant. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented on the Ofsted research that “Ofsted’s findings in this report are sensible, albeit rather obvious.” (Sec Ed: 9/2/22)

Hold onto your established principles, your understanding of the factors that impact on regular attendance and your knowledge of your families to move forward with the confidence that you can turn around poor attendance, thus improving outcomes and future life chances for your pupils.

If you would like to explore the principles and strategies for improving attendance further, including deeper analysis of current research, guidance and requirements of the Education Inspection Framework relating to attendance, take a look at our course on Improving Attendance for Primary Schools.

About the Author

Before joining the Education People’s Primary School Improvement team, Kate had several years of successful Senior Leadership experience, including Headship, in a range of primary schools. Kate is passionate about ensuring all children have equal opportunities to succeed in life, and specialises in improving outcomes for vulnerable pupils. She is currently working as an Evidence Leader of Education for the EEFective Kent Project,  alongside her role as Senior Improvement Adviser for primary schools in East Kent, supporting leaders to drive improvement.