School Attendance Crisis: How to beat the ‘cultural shift’

Time to read: 5min 10 Apr 2023

Recent figures from the Department for Education have highlighted a worrying downturn in school attendance in academic year 2022/23 so far, with many speculating that the absenteeism is a lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A report from The Guardian highlighted that the DfE figures showed “a sustained increase in authorised and unauthorised absences in state schools across England”, with secondary schools being the worst affected. Pupils in these schools missed “more than 9% of classroom time in the first term of the latest academic year, compared with an average of about 5.4% in the five years between 2014 and 2019”.

School attendance isn’t just a concern from an educational attainment perspective; it’s also an important part of safeguarding children. The Safeguarding Company highlight that “not only can regular absence be a red flag for safeguarding issues, but only when children are in school can they talk to staff and be given support for any pastoral and safeguarding problems”.

Attendance is an ongoing problem for schools, and often a source of incredible frustration; after all, you can’t force a child to turn up for school. But what can your school do to tackle absences, and how can EdTech tools like Schoolcomms help?

Why is school attendance so important?

Attending school is central to every child’s achievement, well-being and wider development. School attendance builds good habits, helps children to find security in their routines, and enables the forming of social relationships and secure attachments. It also builds self-esteem and confidence, as children who attend school have more opportunities to see their efforts rewarded and get praise for their contributions, and receive all of the learning that has been planned so they don’t feel they have to try harder to keep up with the other children.

Some parents may think that a day or two every now and again won’t do any harm to their child’s education, but there is strong evidence to suggest that missing school even for one day can have considerable long-term consequences. A publication by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham highlights how quickly even short periods of absence can have a significant effect: a child missing 2 days of school amounts to 93% attendance over 6 weeks, with that figure decreasing to 83% if they miss 5 days.

A 2021 longitudinal study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies examined the “causal effects of school absence on long-run socio-economic outcomes”, and found that “absence significantly reduces contemporaneous academic performance, final educational attainment, and labour income throughout the life-cycle”.

For some children, school attendance may not just be a matter of academic achievement and future prospectus, but also one of basic personal safety. When children attend school teachers are able to identify potential safeguarding concerns and pay attention to children they know to be vulnerable, meaning protective measures can be put in place far more quickly to keep those children safe.

How has the pandemic affected school attendance?

School attendance is a consistent top priority for schools and one that has presented challenges before. In an article from The Guardian, Stuart Lock, the chief executive of the Advantage Schools academy trust commented “[this shift] isn’t dissimilar to the early 2000s when it was very hard to get a significant number of pupils to attend school regularly.”

Attendance may not be a new issue, but the growing concern is that the current attendance crisis is being driven by a post-pandemic cultural shift. More parents are concerned about spreading or catching infectious diseases, especially in cases where family members are at higher risk, given the current strain on the NHS and concerns around treatment waiting times. These concerns are compounded by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, as many parents cannot afford to miss a day’s work because they themselves are ill, or because their child needs medical attention.

The move to online and home learning during lockdown is likely also having an impact, as more parents now feel that there are no negative consequences of children not being in the classroom and that they can simply make up for lost learning at home.

What can schools do to improve attendance?

Improving attendance is not the remit of one member of staff or one team: there must be a whole-school approach to developing and enshrining a culture of encouraging attendance and treating lateness and absence seriously. The DfE has published useful guidance on responsibilities for school attendance which details the attendance responsibilities for parents, schools, academy trusts and governing bodies, and local authorities, to help schools understand their responsibilities when it comes to attendance and how they can support the other groups involved to play their part.

Attendance policy

The first step to creating this culture is to implement a thorough attendance policy, which should be written in consultation with groups like governors, families, and local authorities to be as meaningful as possible. The policy document should clearly outline school day times and term dates, and categorically state what will be counted as late or an absence. The policy should also include the school’s stance on term-time holidays and when absences will be allowed, and guidance on how parents should report an absence.

Raise awareness and reward attendance

A system of rewards and sanctions is a proven method of encouraging pupils to attend school. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham recommend rewards and activities to get children thinking about attendance and realise the consequences of not attending school, such as a star chart or attendance wall whereby pupils can compare their attendance with others and the pupils with the best attendance receive a small reward or celebration in assembly. They also suggest a similar concept of ‘The 100 Club’, children with 100% attendance, who again receive a termly or half-termly reward. These methods are effective at giving primary-age children a reason to stay motivated and engaged with the attendance focus.

For older children, the borough recommends activities like Attendance Week, during which lessons and exercises are designed around the importance of attending school and the consequences of not doing so. This can help students to conceptualise the effect that not attending school can have on their lives, and help them to want to make positive choices.

Electronic attendance management

In addition to these efforts, the right software is a powerful tool for managing attendance on an everyday basis. The Welsh Assembly Government recommends making use of electronic registration because it “enables more effective and efficient monitoring of attendance on a daily basis as well as allowing the identification of longer-term trends in absence which can be used to inform school policy and practice”. Using Schoolcomms, staff can quickly record attendance with the user-friendly interface, and use the data collected to generate powerful reports, identify trends, and drive improvements. Authorised and unauthorised absences can be tracked and used to escalate parental involvement if necessary, giving you data ready to present for more productive and solutions-driven conversations.

Fostering a collaborative relationship and productive dialogue with parents is central to improving attendance, so having tools in place to communicate with them is essential. Schoolcomms messaging is an effortless and cost-effective way to communicate with parents en masse, and provides a full digital record of your communications, enabling effective two-way communication without the extra workload. What’s more, when you integrate Schoolcomms with SIMS, you can stay on top of attendance by sharing your data from SIMS to follow up and capture unexplained absences. In-app messaging lets parents confirm absences in an instant, and all responses are logged back in SIMS, helping you to gain a better picture of your school’s attendance and have productive conversations to drive improvements.

Ready to see how Schoolcomms can help you tackle the attendance crisis? Book a demo to get started!

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