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The brutal slog: on improving attendance

I enjoy assemblies but the empty seats trouble me.  As the year groups get older, the more empty seats there are. Drill down, and disadvantaged students are absent more often.  I agree with those who advocate that developing high quality teaching and learning is the main thing. Trouble is, we need to get young people in to the building and in to the right frame of mind to enable them to take full advantage of that. Indeed, as my mantra has gone this year: the best teachers in Brighton can't help you if you're not here.'

Getting young people in to school is a major priority for schools, especially for children who may have parents who aren't able or willing to act as role models.  The statistics are frightening.  in 2013 a third of students eligible for Pupil Premium funding were absent for more than 15% of the time compared to less than 4% of their more affluent peers. This can create a post code lottery where schools who serve more affluent catchments needn't tackle these issues. The thing is, if these students don't develop good habits and routines early on, they won't achieve. We will never ensure that students from disadvantaged background achieve their potential if we don't tackle the root cause of their poor achievement: poor attendance. We can put all the teaching and learning blocks in place and yet we will continue to fail if we do not address this first.

In my setting, if we get children in to school we will eradicate the poor attainment of children.

Of course, this is a brutal slog and one of changing the mindset of parents and trying to tackle generations of disengagement.

First lets put out the impact:

  • School attendance is going to be the best ever, although still not good enough.
  • We have halved the persistent absence rate this year.
  • Year 7 will come in above national average for attendance and below national average in terms of the absence gap between disadvantaged and other students. (a result of a deliberate focus on Year 7 - there is no point in pilling the the intervention in Year 11 when children stop coming in to school in Year 8).
  • We have closed the absence gap between disadvantaged children and others across the school from around 11% to 6%.
There is much more to go and we are restless for further improvement. Here are some of the strategies used:

  • Set an aspirational target - we are aiming for 96% which was well over 2.5% above the 2015 level. 
  • Apart from the new Year 7 intake, we know our students well. This enables us to get a flying start in September. Key groups of students were identified and benefitted from weekly conversations with their Year Group Leader. Cumulative and weekly attendance were recorded and the conversations allowed us to tackle key barriers to learning.
  • Smart use of data and early intervention. Attendance data is probably the most accurate and real-time in a school. We still have a way to go with this, but stripping tutor time back to enable early conversations around attendance is our goal. 
  • Enabling our attendance officer to have conversations with students and families. This is vital and an aim remains to free up more time. It's about getting out in to the community to set up relationships and having positive conversations.
  • Trusting our teachers - through the pupil premium referral form, teachers can respond to attendance issues quickly. For example, our Art department bid for supplies to set up a painting club which encouraged students to come in to school to paint. This allowed us to have conversations about other subjects and encourage them in to lessons.
  • We have a fantastic CALM team who target and support students but also hold fortnightly meetings out in the community, targeting families. Ralph, our school dog, is also part of the attendance strategy and many safeguarding issues come to light as a result of conversations around attendance. 
  • Keep attendance high profile through assemblies, rewards, and attendance lottery and breakfast snacks.
  • Growing Grit has been woven throughout our TLCs this year and it seems that staff have a new appetite for providing extra opportunities. This has been an important area to discuss and pull apart ideas. 
In a nutshell, it's about hard graft and focusing on attendance. We can set year group and individual targets and use data well. Moving forward, we hope to expand the breakfast club, teaming up with Harlequins Rugby, Albion in the Community and offering other internal student leadership opportunities. Morning activities coupled with decent food will hopefully kick start the day, and my aspiration is for every pupil premium student to take part in high quality extra curricular activities.

In summary, I believe that leadership and the quality of teaching is the most important thing. However, for our school at least, there are issues that need addressing so that all students have equal access to the high quality teaching and learning opportunities. If students come in to school more often then they are more likely to benefit from life changing opportunities. That's when investment in teaching and learning is capitalised upon: if students are convinced to attend school but sequences of lessons are poor, they are less likely to catch up. This is where appropriate levels of challenge and support (differentiation and scaffolding) are needed and skilled teachers can reintegrate young people in to the class with ease. Watch this space.

Photo credit:  used, with thanks,  through a Creative Commons License.


  1. I do feel that we have it easier in some ways in Primary for attendance, although there are some issues particular to our phases. We have moved our attendance in the right direction over recent years and are finding that we are using many of the approaches above. We do need to become more skilled in our use of the attendance data as i am concerned that we are missing specific children in a big school who could be attending more.
    One thing which has worked well for us has been the end of year attendance lottery which sees children put in for a prize draw which earns them significant cash prizes. Parents appreciate the sense it gives of us working with them rather than the punitive side they see of fining.

    1. Hi Bill, Thanks for the comment. I agree that working with parents is crucial. We do pick up issues from Primary where students have been nurtured a little too much and find the step to Secondary harder to deal with, but this is something we are getting better at and we have a superb attendance officer and pastoral team. Fining really is a blunt instrument and one that we have found to be effective in a very small number of cases.


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