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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

School absence – Where did all the students go?

Photo of lonely figure sat on park bench, representing school absence

Hannah Day looks at how schools can address the persistent absence that’s shaping up to be one of the pandemic’s most lasting impacts…

Hannah Day
by Hannah Day
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

School absence is up, to the point where it’s now become a major focus of government attention.

Many students can remain stubbornly difficult to get into school, which the pandemic and its aftermath has only made worse. The MIS provider ESS SIMS recently carried out a survey that found a worrying decline in post-COVID attendance, with around 80% of heads stating that absenteeism was presenting a problem for their schools (and those in urban environments rating the problem higher than their rural counterparts).

Only 53% of independent schools pointed to absenteeism as being an issue for them, suggesting that the links we’ve seen between economic inequality and absenteeism still remain. Judging by the survey’s responses overall, it seems that urban schools with a high proportion of students on free school meals were those contending with the most difficult absenteeism challenges.

In January 2022, the DfE launched a consultation on four proposals for supporting schools, trusts and LA with attendance issues – including the introduction of statutory guidance for managing and improving attendance; setting standards for LA attendance services; issuing fixed penalty notices for incidents of school absence; and bringing academy rules around granting leave of absence in line with those of maintained schools.

In a response issued last May, the government indicated that it intends to proceed with all four.

Start with the person

Whatever form those new government measures take, now is the ideal time to review how your school currently approaches the issue of absence. Much of what we do is more about working with people, rather than the content of our subject. We can only teach meaningfully if we have engaged students present who are in a position to learn.

“Much of what we do is more about working with people, rather than the content of our subject”

With many persistently absent students, the causes of their low attendance will be broadly known. Whether you have a grasp of those causes or not, though, make time for a review. I myself only recently discovered that one of my students, who had been struggling to attend classes and concentrate when present, had lost her father and told nobody. Needless to say, supporting a grieving teenager calls for a very different approach to supporting a lazy one.

The details in that case came to light during a careers meeting. Providing students with opportunities to consider their later lives in personal, non-threatening spaces can give you the chance to learn more about their unique situations.

If prior behaviour management strategies or school counselling have been unsuccessful, then support with a more practical focus can really help, since the active focus will be on real-world considerations, rather than emotional ones.

School clubs

When addressing persistent school absence among younger students, we’ve seen some success by getting them involved in after school groups, such as sports and drama clubs. These have allowed them to mix and make friends across year groups, and see themselves and others in a different light outside of the classroom.

What the careers meeting and after-school club successes demonstrate is the important of connecting with students and what’s important to them. By making attendance the sole focus of our interactions with students, we risk giving them a predominantly negative experience of conversing with staff, which could compound the situation even further.

At the same time, we must also consider practical issues – particularly given the increased costs of paying for food, travel and uniform compared to just a year ago. As the aforementioned research makes clear, the more disadvantaged a student’s background is, the more likely it is that they’ll be serially absent.

Lazy stereotypes

What we mustn’t do, however, is fall back on lazy stereotypes of unengaged parents and disaffected young people. Such factors may well be involved in some cases – but what if they’re not? What if there’s a simple solution to be had by providing some form of practical support?

“What if there’s a simple solution to be had by providing some form of practical support?”

The Glasspool charity trust operates an essential living fund, which is open to any legal resident anywhere in the UK. There are also a number of community and religious groups who can offer support locally. Contact any such groups near you and see if they can be enlisted to help ensure that your pupils are having their basic needs meet. After all, if a young person isn’t already warm, regularly fed and clothed at home, how readily will they apply themselves to the task of learning?

Another consideration in some urban areas is the targeting of vulnerable young people by organised gangs. If there’s a risk of gang influence affecting students at your school, you may be able to seek help from the award-winning, anti-youth violence charity Power the Fight.

Engaging families about school absence

Don’t forget that families can provide insights you won’t get directly from students themselves. When approaching families, always do so with a warm, positive attitude. Let them know that you’re interested in the whole person and how the school can help. It’s vital to remove any sense of shame or judgement.

Many parents I’ve spoken to feel that schools have something of an ‘us and them’ approach when meeting them. Without open dialogue, it won’t be possible to build a meaningful relationship. So however ‘bad’ you perceive someone’s parenting to be, suspend judgement now.

“Many parents I’ve spoken to feel that schools have something of an ‘us and them’ approach when meeting them”

Find out how a parent or carer sees their child. What do they love about them? What do they find frustrating? When did the current issues start? Was there a slow build-up, or some catalyst that suddenly made things worse?

What does the student do in their free time? When they’re not at school, who are they? What do they love, and what are they good at? Conduct yourself as if you know nothing and want to know everything. You may be surprised at what you end up discovering.

When the time comes, discuss with home what might be considered ‘positive attendance’ as a starting point. A persistently late student could actually be achieving quite a lot just by getting to school at all. Acknowledge and verbalise this positively first; then seek to improve on it.

We can’t accept absences from school, but we can mix the support and discipline we respond with. If a student responds to a firm hand, then by all means use it. But in my experience at least, many more will respond better to more personal approaches.

School absence among teachers

Absenteeism among teachers can have a similarly huge impact on a school’s culture and continuity – here’s how to tackle it…

Make your school a great place to work
Be positive, welcoming and open. Publicly acknowledge staff achievements, encourage training, find out what progression aims staff have and find ways to help them. Make colleagues feel seen and valued.

Find out why staff are off
For this, you need a confidential, ‘tell all’ system. In person, make it clear that you want to know what, besides illness, will affect staff attendance. Inviting everyone to then later use anonymised forms to comment freely may well prove quite the eye opener…

Employ in-house cover
This is often cheaper than sourcing personnel from a supply agency. It will also allow your supply staff to build relationships with students. Ensure their contracts allow you to redeploy them for different duties at times when no staff cover is needed.

How many sick days can you afford to cover?
Compare your last three years of school absence data – though you may need to control for lockdown-era irregularities. Is it a comfortable margin? If not, get insurance.

Hannah Day is head of art, media and film at Ludlow College

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