Good attendance: listen, understand, empathise and support

F.P. Report

LONDON: A new report by Ofsted finds that schools that improve pupil attendance from a low baseline, maintain high levels of attendance and minimise persistent absence adopt similar strategies that can best be summarised as ‘listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate’.

The report, ‘Securing good attendance and tackling persistent absence’, published today, looks at different aspects of pupil attendance and how schools tackle the current challenges they face. It finds that schools that have typically tackled absence well in the past are continuing to do so now. Leaders are showing the same persistence and conveying the same high expectations. And they continue to think about what action, if any, they need to take to remove barriers to pupils’ attendance.

Many schools are still experiencing higher-than-average pupil absences due to COVID-19. Schools also continue to face challenges that are indirectly related to the pandemic, such as parents’ and pupils’ anxieties.

Sources of pupils’ anxiety include fears of family members becoming ill, seeing parents under more stress or facing financial hardship, and experiencing domestic violence. Older pupils worry about whether their Year 11 examinations might be cancelled and how this might affect their future. More time spent online during national lockdowns has also fuelled social anxiety for some children and young people. Although these concerns are not directly related to school, they can affect pupils’ mental health and their attendance suffers accordingly.

The report also notes some new attendance challenges that have emerged since the start of the autumn term 2021, such as parents not understanding the latest rules about isolation, being generally cautious, or taking holidays in term time. And there continue to be many reasons for persistent non-attendance that are not linked to the pandemic at all. For example, parents who did not have a good experience of school themselves may not value the importance of attendance. Basic routines may not in place at home for children to help them to get into school on time, or at all.

Today’s report finds that schools with successful attendance strategies do not dismiss pupils’ anxieties, but sensitively analyse them. And parental concerns are recognised and sympathetically addressed. Leaders in these schools also:

  • have high expectations for every pupil’s attendance at school and communicate these expectations clearly, strongly and consistently to parents and pupils
  • explain to parents and pupils why good attendance is important and how it helps pupils to achieve – pupils who aren’t attending aren’t learning
  • listen to parents carefully to find out why their children are not attending so that they can act accordingly. This means challenging parents who do not make sure that their children attend, and offering support where needed
  • ensure that attendance is always recorded accurately and analysed for patterns and trends, which then helps target action, both for individuals and at a whole-school level
  • understand that good attendance does not happen in isolation – there is a relationship between attendance and the quality of the school’s curriculum, ethos, behaviour and inclusivity
  • do not stop pushing for whole-school improvement once attendance reaches the national average, rather they see the process of securing good attendance as an ongoing process that is never finished.

Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman said:

There’s no doubt that schools continue to face some very tricky challenges around pupil attendance. But it is clear that leaders who have previously improved pupil attendance have managed to maintain good levels this term by applying the same principle of ‘listen, understand, empathise and support – but do not tolerate.

These leaders listen to parents and pupils. They understand the importance of making their school a safe place where pupils really want to be, with the right ethos and a curriculum that enables pupils to make progress and achieve well. They also seek to understand what is stopping individual pupils from attending regularly and they put the right support in place to help solve the problem.

I hope today’s report is helpful for schools that are looking for best practice in improving and maintaining attendance.

Persistent absence can be related to family circumstances and often involves some of the most vulnerable pupils. Ofsted heard examples of schools that tackled persistent absence by giving families a wake-up phone call every day, giving pupils special responsibilities to motivate them to come to school, arranging transport to and from school, and making home visits.

The report notes that issues that lead to deeply ingrained patterns of persistent absence are often much wider than a school alone can deal with. In these cases, working with other agencies, such as social care professionals and local authority attendance officers, becomes crucial.