Are Your Pupils AWOL – Absent Without Learning?

Low attendance means low attainment, but it᾿s not always simple for children to turn up for school, says Jaine Stannard…

Jaine Stannard
by Jaine Stannard
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In February last year, the DfE published a research report that found a strong correlation between attendance and attainment.

Nobody was surprised – we’ve always known that missing school has an impact on children’s exam results. We also know that disadvantaged children are more likely to miss school, and less likely to achieve good test results, go into higher education or find work. But before we begin to look at how this can be addressed, it’s worth noting that while it may not be the most exciting method, intensive, rigorous tracking of attendance is the best way to avoid frequent absences. This is most effectively done by a dedicated person – if you look at attendance regularly, you can track trends and nip issues in the bud before they become big problems.

1. You get more with honey than vinegar

Sending positive messages home to parents, not just negative ones, can make them feel less like the school is against them and more like it’s a supportive agency.

This reduces some of the anxieties or negative feelings that can result in parents keeping their children at home. It also means they will be less likely to avoid or ignore any phone calls from the school, which can be hugely frustrating when you need to contact them.

Case study – Ayesha School Home Support (SHS) practitioner Ayesha noticed the same group of children were always late or absent. She started an attendance and punctuality club, where they could discuss why they were having problems coming into school or arriving on time, what they were missing out on and how they felt about it.

She found that children opened up at this support group when they realised others shared similar experiences. They would also encourage each other and looked forward to the club (another incentive for them to come in). Importantly, it gave Ayesha a way to find out what was going on at home and how she could help.

2. Identify home issues and take action

By building good relationships with parents, SHS practitioners know when there are complex issues at home that may be affecting attendance.

Practitioners also refer parents for further support from relevant statutory bodies when issues are affecting a child, and will highlight the importance of school attendance. Unless it is explained clearly, parents may not consider low attendance a particularly drastic problem, and issues that lead to absenteeism may be overlooked.

Case study – Jaheem Jaheem was persistently absent. His father had been violent towards his mother, Imani, and was in prison. Both mother and son had mental health issues, including feelings of anxiety and paranoia.

Jaheem had particularly great anxiety about coming into school, as he felt other children in his area might pick on him. Imani shared his concerns; she would make excuses for his poor attendance and would stop answering the phone when the school called.

SHS Practitioner Jack built up a good relationship with Jaheem by having informal chats with him on a regular basis and visiting the family at home. Jack also worked with school to devise a timetable for Jaheem that allowed him to avoid crowds and certain classroom environments that could trigger his anxiety.

Finally, Jack made referrals to CAMHS, the school counsellor and a borough mental health peer support group for Jaheem. Jack also worked on his relationship with Imani by feeding back positive messages about Jaheem and ensuring she was always updated with any information. Jaheem’s attendance has since improved.

3. Get practical

Sometimes it’s necessary to try a hands-on, practical approach. SHS practitioners often go to pupils’ houses in the morning to wake them up and get them on their way to school, helping them to develop regular morning routines.

In one primary school, a family were only sending the male children to school. Their SHS practitioner would go to the house and collect the girls, ensuring that they didn’t miss out on the same education their brothers were receiving.

Case study – Cameron, Curtis and Kodi Cameron, Curtis and Kodi all had poor attendance. Their SHS practitioner, Sam, spoke to the boys and found that they were often bullied about the state of their school uniform, which was tatty and often incomplete, so they had gotten into the habit of skipping school.

In addition to using the SHS Welfare Fund (finances available for practitioners to apply for emergency practical help) to purchase new uniforms, Sam visited the boys᾿ home every morning for a week. She ensured they were out of bed, dressed, that they had their homework and that they’d eaten breakfast.

She also took them to school. Within 12 weeks of her making the visits and replacing the uniforms, the boys’ attendance at school had dramatically improved. School attendance for all three boys is now at 95%. If physically getting children up in the morning isn’t an option, a quick and easy substitute is to text children (or parents) in before school to make sure they’re awake and ready to go. If you receive a response with an excuse saying that the child won’t be coming in, you have the opportunity to offer solutions.

4. Build up parental networks to support isolated families

Good parental networks can be a useful tool for home issues. You can work on building these networks by organising coffee mornings, school events like tea parties, and ‘buddy systems’ where EAL parents who speak the same languages can support each other with issues such as reading letters sent home.

Case study – Nicole Nicole was always late and often absent. Her practitioner, Evelyn, discovered that her mother was unable to get out of bed due to arthritis and so Nicole was waking her siblings up, getting them ready for school and walking them to their school before she made she own journey. She was, of course, exhausted.

Evelyn began by picking up Nicole and her siblings herself, but soon found another parent who lived nearby, went the same way and was willing to help. Nicole’s attendance and punctuality improved significantly as a result, and Nicole’s mother developed a friendship with the other parent.

Of course, it’s helpful to implement more general practices than these very focused examples too. You can raise awareness of school attendance data at every level so that you have a whole-school culture of valuing attendance.

You can broadcast percentages, in an easy-to-understand way, on school monitors; put up posters explaining why attendance is important or make brief announcements in assembly. You can also get creative, asking teachers to track attendance in their classes in exciting ways.

When you reach certain goals, celebrate. It doesn’t have to be expensive – you could hold a picnic in the school field or have a fun class award ceremony. However, the above must be combined with individual work. It’s individuals who make up attendance statistics and by targeting their attendance, you might be able to make a wider change to their lives. Disadvantaged children are disproportionately affected by poor attendance. They deserve their time in school, and we can all make that easier for them to achieve.

Some names have been changed

Jaine Stannard is head of services and development at School-Home Support, a national charity working to maximise educational opportunities and improve quality of life; for more information, visit or follow @SHSorguk

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