Amid the sometimes fierce debate on how to improve the UK education system lies an indisputable truth – that pupils must actually attend school to benefit from what is being taught there.
While after-school clubs, exciting lessons and inspiring teachers are all fantastic, they won’t reach the most disaffected pupils unless they’re in class. And unfortunately, too many vulnerable children are still frequently absent.
In May this year, the DfE reported that pupil absences in England for the autumn 2015 term had decreased from the previous year. The overall rate for state-funded primary and state-funded secondary schools had gone down from 4.4% in 2014 to 4.1% in 2015. Great!
However, closer investigation reveals that the majority of these absences are caused by a minority of pupils who are persistently missing from class. When we look at the number of children who were persistently absent in autumn 2015 – losing 10% or more of their own possible sessions – the figure was still at 10.3%. That’s over 10% of pupils, missing more than 10% of school. And a disproportionately large percentage of those pupils are disadvantaged.
When, in February last year, the Department of Education published a report [PDF] that found a strong correlation between attendance and attainment, nobody was surprised. We’ve always known that missing school has an impact on a child’s grades. Because vulnerable children are more likely to miss school, they are less likely to achieve good test results, less likely to go into higher education, and less likely to find work, perpetuating a cycle of intergenerational poverty. And if families are struggling with issues such as housing, poverty, domestic violence, crime and mental health, it’s really hard to prioritise school attendance.
I work for School-Home Support (SHS), a charity that uses attendance as a possible indicator of further issues and does all it can to tackle them. For example, one of our SHS practitioners recently worked with a child named Jakob*. Jakob is autistic and has attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and until our practitioner got involved, he was sharing a single metal bed with his brother. He couldn’t sleep because of the sound of the bed creaking in the night, and often would end up on the floor. By morning, he would be exhausted and couldn’t make it into school. His attendance was poor.
Our practitioner used the SHS Welfare Fund to buy wooden bunk beds for Jakob and his brother, ensuring they now get a good night’s sleep. She also started going to their house each morning, to wake the boys up and get them into a morning routine, supporting their parents to set boundaries and continue the routine when she wasn’t there.
Jakob’s attendance is now 95%, with no further intervention required. Having a dedicated person to watch attendance closely, building relationships with parents and intervening as early as possible is an invaluable tool for improving attendance and as a result, attainment.
It’s often practical issues like this that are preventing children from attending school. Another child we worked with, Sophie*, was going into school on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays but never attended on Thursdays or Fridays. The reason? Her SHS practitioner discovered that the family didn’t own a washing machine and she only had one school shirt. By Wednesday, she was being bullied at school for being smelly, so on Thursdays and Fridays her parents kept her home.
We were able to buy the family a washing machine and a couple of extra shirts, but it was only by tracking attendance and building a good relationship with Sophie’s parents that the practitioner was able to find out what the problem was and solve it.
Another attendance issue in the news of late is that the proportion of absence accounted for by family holidays (both authorised and unauthorised) has increased – from 6.6% of all missed sessions in autumn 2014, to 7.6% in autumn 2015. 90,000 parents were fined in the last academic year for taking their children on term-time vacations, and the number of fines issued because of attendance has risen by over 50% in a year.
This is a huge issue, and once again it’s disadvantaged children who are most affected. Wealthier families can more easily afford to take holidays over the summer, while price increases of up to and exceeding 100% mean that this isn’t often an option for low-income households.
Fining parents, particularly those on low incomes, should always be a last resort. But 10 days away doesn’t offer the same capacity for learning as 10 days of school, and this needs to be clear. Making it acceptable for parents to take children out of school muddles the idea of attendance as a priority, making term-time holidays a strong temptation for some low income families.
We need to make it clear that school is the priority, and we need to find options for families so that they don’t have to resort to taking their children away during term-time. Clamping down on holiday providers’ price-hiking would be the preferable solution – after all, it’s the families who are least able to afford holidays who are most likely to need the break. I’m sure Sophie’s family could do with a trip away, but at an extra £150 per person to go during the summer, it’s unlikely to happen. Might there be other solutions?
Maybe term dates could be staggered by region. This would help families with children at different schools, and wouldn’t require collaboration with holiday providers.
What is certain is that with the numbers of pupils being taken out of school for holidays increasing dramatically, something needs to be done soon; and we must continue to emphasise the importance of attendance. Only when all young people are in school, ready to learn, can we properly tackle the problem of educational inequality.
Much has been said lately of improving the life chances of children; but how can we enhance the prospects of those like Jakob and Sophie if they’re not in school with their peers?
The consequences of poor attendance
• Poor educational attainment
• Only 3% of children whose attendance is 50% or worse get five good GCSEs, compared with 73% of children who are in school for more than 95% of the time
• Anti-social behaviour and crime
• Low paid work or unemployment
• 1 in 3 pupils who were persistently absent during the final year of school are not in education, employment or training at 18, compared to 1 in 10 regular attendees
• Intergenerational cycles of poverty
• The persistent absence rate for pupils living in the most deprived areas (5.8%) is over three times higher than the percentage for pupils living in the least deprived areas (1.7%)
Jan Tallis is Chief Executive of School-Home Support, a national charity that seeks to tackle the underlying issues that affect a child’s ability to make the most of their education, and is currently Chair of Governors at a secondary school in East London. You can follow her at @JanTallis
*names have been changed
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