Featured in April's Education Today, Louise Pink, our Senior Customer Success MAT Manager, who, from her previous role as a Primary Head Teacher, knows all too well how difficult the issue of persistent absenteeism is to tackle, highlights here, how by having a deeper level of pupil insights and context, schools can support and work closer with parents and carers to find a solution.
If absenteeism in our schools simply boiled down to a parent or carer wishing to avoid a costly holiday at a peak time, or because they did not value their children's education, it might be an easier problem to address. But the truth is, even the parents and carers of the worst attenders, on the whole, buy into the value of taking an active role in their child's education, according to a survey by the charity Parentkind.
Yet absenteeism continues to be a problem. So serious is the issue that Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, has floated the idea of stripping parents of their benefits if their children truant. The Department of Education is also proposing new measures to tackle it.
We know that attendance matters, but the challenge post-pandemic is finding new ways to address the age-old problem. Although the prospect of a fine will remain, as it's a parent or carer's legal responsibility to ensure their child attends school, it's the strength of the relationship the school has with the parents and carers that will ultimately be beneficial as the children develop into adults themselves.
Schools can't tackle absenteeism alone. After all, six-year-olds don't normally get themselves to school, and it might well 'take a village' to encourage a fourteen-year-old with anxiety related absence back in.
60% of school leaders spoken to by SIMS as part of a report into increasing attendance, wanted more support from parents and guardians to help them tackle absenteeism. Knowing what's behind the failure to attend will help shape those more difficult conversations and ultimately improve habits of good attendance.
Improved and sustained parental engagement is the way forward to tackling absenteeism, so how can schools go about this in a way that works and is sustainable?
Understanding the root causes of persistent absenteeism is essential and goes beyond a yes or no for attendance, or a marked late entry in the register. The campaigning group Square Peg call for more compassion and understanding for parents and carers struggling to get their children to attend. To break the cycle, we need to work alongside our parents and carers and leave 'judgement' to one side.
Having access to a deeper level of insight helps as it provides the context for a pupil's continuing absence. For a parent or carer struggling with mental health problems, or living with domestic abuse, managing to get their children into school three times a week instead of once, is an achievement. Armed with this kind of contextual information schools will be better placed to make the best decision on how to support the family and address the absenteeism.
Adding notes in the management information system (MIS) recording key information can help explain absences. For example, the family could be struggling to get an autism assessment or CAMHS appointment and this could be having a negative impact on the child's willingness to attend school. Knowing this would allow the school to support and work more closely with parents and carers to find a solution.
Make messages meaningful
Understanding the issues behind absenteeism means the responses can be more personal too. Parents and carers can struggle to see how statistics about absenteeism relates to their child. For example, receiving an email or a text that overall, their child's attendance has dipped below 96% won't in many ways hit the mark. However, what will resonate is a more tailored response.
By interrogating attendance data on an MIS you can spot trends that will help reveal that pupil A often misses school on a Friday. Sending a timely text to the parent or carer on a Thursday evening highlighting how missing a day adds up to a 39-day loss of learning for their child by the end of the year, could prompt them to make sure their child is ready for school the next day. Personsalised communication to parents and carers like this can help reduce chronic absenteeism.
A short message is more likely to be read than an email or a letter to busy parents and carers. Regular conversations and gentle text message reminders can build trust between parents and carers and the school, especially with harder to reach parents and carers, who often lead complex lives and can be reluctant to engage. It can help them to feel more comfortable reaching out for support if they need it and make it easier for them to work with the school to boost their child's attendance.
Breaking the cycle
The reasons behind absenteeism are multiple. If schools can spot areas of concern earlier, they can identify those students more at risk of absenteeism before it becomes a problem.
Advances in technology means it is now easier for schools to compare attendance history of pupils against the attendance level of their class, their year group, and the school and pinpoint those pupils who are most at risk of having poor attendance.
Absence adds up
Spotting patterns in the data held in the management information system can help schools take a more planned approach. Although schools are working harder to try and curtail absenteeism patterns and causes are not always obvious and this is where using technology can help provide a more comprehensive and accurate picture.
For instance, some groups of children will exhibit similar behaviour, which when analysed collectively could be identified as a trend. According to the charity Plan International 64% of girls between 12-21 in the UK have missed either part of the school day, or a whole school day due to period poverty and the shame and stigma around menstruation.
Analysis of data could show skew towards girls missing PE or not turning up to school on several consecutive days on a regular basis. The simple provision of free period products could have an impact on figures.
Prevention through improved parental engagement is pivotal to tackling absenteeism. Identifying those at risk of absence by spotting early patterns in behaviour can help schools engage more effectively with parents and carers and put targeted early support in place.
Home and school collaboration is what makes change happen and for this to be effective, schools needs to understand why it's happening, as much as when it's happening, and data is key to that process.