The impact of missing just a few days of school each year is particularly indicated in a child’s rate of development. According to a recent report published by the DfE, absence can hinder the chance of attaining a good set of GCSEs. To add to this, the impact of poor attendance has a knock-on effect on life after school, leaving those without a good set of GCSEs more likely to be out of work. As a result, those who do not attend school regularly are more inclined to fall into anti-social and criminal behaviour.
By law, parents are responsible for ensuring that their child receives full-time education that meets their individual needs. Under the Education Act of 1996, “the parent is responsible for making sure their child receives a full-time education. If a child of compulsory school age who is a registered pupil at a school fails to attend regularly at the school, his parent is guilty of an offence”. Failure to ensure a child receives their educational needs results in a series of fines and prosecutions for the parent.
It is clear that the emphasis is currently placed on the parent’s responsibility for their child’s attendance. This approach punishes parents, and by extension, the child too. However, by doing so, the authorities are perhaps ignoring the root cause of low attendance figures. Here, the focus is simply on improving statistics, rather than changing and challenging persistently poor behaviours. In response to this, tackling the reasons why children choose not to attend school is likely to have a more fruitful outcome.
Reasons for poor attendance
For primary schools, absences often appear to be condoned by parents. Parents who place a low value on education are more likely to condone absence. Also, since younger children often depend on families to get to school, attendance in the hands of the parent. Here, the focus of poor attendance is not on the child, but on the influence of the parent.
In contrast, secondary school students are more likely to attribute their absence from school to school-related factors, instead of issues at home. Many who miss lessons during their secondary school experience do so out of boredom. In this case, the curriculum appears not to be suited to the child’s needs, and therefore fails to engage the pupils. Alongside this, the quality of teaching received from pupils also has an impact on attendance. Consequently, this suggests that if there is room for improvement within the school environment, attendance rates will follow.
The exact reason behind an absence is determined on a case-by-case basis. The possible reasons can be split into a number of categories. Firstly, factors directly affecting the student such as harm or neglect, poor health, substance abuse, SEN and bullying, can contribute to poor attendance. Secondly, familial circumstances such as a lack of supervision and guidance, disinterest in education and unfamiliarity with school laws can result in absences. Furthermore, problems within the school environment itself, such as safety issues, weak support networks and a lack of resources are also responsible. Finally, wider economic factors such as student employment, poverty and a lack of child care can be at the root of the attendance issue. In particular, children who run away present a particular kind of absence, which schools are often unaware of. Although children choose to run away for a multitude of reasons, it is often understood as a cry for help. The decision to leave can be the result of serious problems in the home, such as familial tensions, abuse, and neglect. On the other hand, it can also be a result of problems at school, such as unmet special educational needs. In 2013/14, SEN students were most likely to be absent from school. In this case, absence tends to be the result of the school failing to address all of the student’s particular needs. Here, the reasons for absence are grounded in both the individual’s learning difficulties, and the school’s lack of appropriate attention. Therefore, low attendance levels need to be treated according to the entire network of the student, the school and the surrounding factors.
In order to improve attendance within schools, a number of strategies can be employed to help improve a child’s quality of education. Firstly, by implementing a series of policies, procedures and targets, leaders are able to focus on raising expectations for high attendance. This works most effectively when the policy is assigned to the entire school, whilst the targets are set according to individual circumstances. Therefore high attendance rates become an integral part of the whole school ethos, allowing leaders to pinpoint prominent issues within the system.
Another method which can be used to raise attendance levels is rewarding students and providing incentives. By celebrating and promoting high attendance, routinely absent children are given the incentive to attend school on a more regular basis. For example, rewarding classes with certificates for high attendance encourages a communal sense of pride, thus engaging truant children in the overall expectation for high attendance. The child takes on a new level of responsibility, as their attendance not only impacts their own statistics, but the entire class’ results are affected too. In line with this, as mentioned in the articles, breakfast clubs also work as a method of incentive for attendance. When supported and monitored correctly, such clubs can improve both attendance and punctuality, by providing a welcoming environment. Specifically, this can alleviate issues in the home, by removing the child from possible tensions which would otherwise hinder their attendance.
Particularly in the case of primary schools, where research has shown absence to be parentally condoned, providing an effective support network between the school, child and the parent is crucial. Engaging regularly and working with parents/carers is a key communication process that can help to raise attendance. By familiarising parents with school policies and offering support when needed, they are much more likely to respond in an active manner if an issue arises. Even at secondary school, when absence appears to most often be a result of the issues within the school environment itself, involving parents is a necessary and important stage in providing support.
One way of creating a network of support that extends beyond the classroom is through the use of technology. Using messaging systems provides the opportunity for parents to explain their child’s absence. Furthermore, if the parent is unaware of the child’s absence, the system allows the parent to be connected directly to the school. This approach flags up any issues immediately, keeping parents in the loop of their child’s progress. In addition, it allows schools to identify patterns of absences and address the reasons behind these. By having these systems in place, schools are able to send this information on to the local authority to resolve the issue, if needed. Being able to recognise the risks and indicators of persistent absentees is essential. Notably, for children at risk of running away, careful attention should be paid to their behaviour. Noticing patterns of increasingly challenging behaviour, tiredness, lateness and hunger can allow teachers to step in before the problem escalates.
If the problem of absence does reach a difficult stage, the Local Authority can apply for Education Supervision Orders (ESOs) in the case of a child’s poor school attendance. The ESO aims to put in place a plan for the child and their parents. The application for an ESO is processed in a family court. Since it is backed by the court, the child’s needs are paramount and there are consequences for non-compliance. This approach maintains close surveillance over a child’s education for a long period. The school has a duty to help with any plans for that child, along with the local authority, the family and any other services. If ESOs are to work effectively, it is right that they are led by education services – but unless there is wider children’s services support, we will miss a valuable opportunity to intervene early and secure better outcomes for some very vulnerable children and young people.