Raising attendance rates among key student groups


Ed Owen explains the strategies and ideas he employed in order to raise the attendance rates of key pupil groups within his school.

My first role as a Future Leader was at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton. The role was a new and temporary one and the principal, Philip Cantwell, was keen to use it to make sustainable impacts that would benefit the students’ achievement for years to come.

Philip had identified that a major stumbling block to progress was a poor attendance record which had become ingrained over many years. 

He therefore tasked me with raising the school’s attendance in all key groups in the academic year 2011/12, with a view to raising attainment overall.

I quickly realised that a fundamental shift in both policy and attitude on the part of staff would be required in order to achieve sustainable improvements.

Staff had become used to low attendance and there was a general acceptance of the status quo. Similarly, among the students there was a prevailing feeling of apathy towards attendance and I could see that it would be a huge challenge to make them want to come to school and learn, and would require creating and embedding radically different habits.

However, I was sure that the results would be felt beyond a simple uplift in attendance statistics – there is a clear link between improved attendance and achievement. Students with a good attendance record have far greater chances of success in their future life.

My first step was to introduce fortnightly attendance monitoring for every student – this allowed me to use data to gain a complete picture of attendance at a micro level. I could also see the incremental improvements that my new policies were effecting, as I introduced them. 

Early in 2012, keen to build on the changes I could already see taking effect, I took advantage of the opportunities offered by the Future Leaders Network and visited the Handsworth Grange Sports College near Sheffield to learn from their good practices and take those lessons back to Malcolm Arnold. 

Subsequent to this visit, I introduced new responsibilities into the house managers’ roles. They were tasked with calling the parents of every single student who was absent from the school every single day. I wrote a script for them to use on a first absence, second absence and for three absences or more. 

This allowed them to build critical relationships with parents and encourage their support in tackling absenteeism. This policy wasn’t without challenges, as in the beginning it added significantly to the workload of the house managers, so overcoming their natural resistance by showing them the impact it would have was key. 

Within weeks, this extra effort had paid off and the number of phone calls being made had reduced to a handful, with a high of 94 per cent attendance recorded in a week in May 2012 – the house managers were buoyed by the success they could see they were having, leading to enhanced job satisfaction and renewed motivation on their part.

My background is in PE teaching and I realised that introducing a competitive spirit could create a turnaround in the attitudes of students towards attendance.

To run alongside the FA Cup, I introduced the SA (School Attendance) Cup, pitting tutor groups against each other in a similar model. This was extremely valuable in securing the buy-in of students and creating a fundamental shift in their attitudes towards attendance. 

I combined this with strict sanctions for poor punctuality, introducing “Late Gates”, with break, lunch and two-hour after-school detentions for students late to school and lessons. 

While these punishments were harsh, they helped turn around the prevailing attitude that poor punctuality was somehow acceptable. Only with an attitude that attendance and punctuality was important, could we show the value of education – not valuing the presence of pupils in lessons implies that what they are there to learn is not important, thereby undermining their education as a whole.

These new policies could not have succeeded without consistent and relentless follow-up so I wrote a job description for and recruited an attendance officer. He intervened where necessary, targeting all students with an attendance record of between 85 and 93.5 per cent, which was the academy’s target for the year. 

He relentlessly followed up on every single student, focusing particularly on key groups: English as an additional language, free school meals and SEN. 

A combination of these measures resulted in a sustainable year-on-year improvement of 2.4 per cent in the academy’s attendance between 2010/11 and 2011/12. Significant improvements were also achieved in all target groups. 

Punctuality initiatives reduced the number of students late to the academy from a high of 1,500 in one week, to a low of 90. The changes empowered the house managers, instilling belief and confidence that they could have an impact and make a difference.

I am confident that the fundamental shift in attitudes will ensure that these improvements are sustainable and the benefits will be reaped for years to come both in staff and students. Reflecting on the experience, I would say at the heart of the success of these initiatives were three things:

  • Consistent, rigorous, unequivocal reinforcement of the rules and sanctions.

  • Buy-in of key stakeholders.

  • A supportive, empowering and approachable principal who gave me the confidence to challenge the status quo and deliver radical change.

  • Ed Owen is now assistant principal at Harris Girls Academy East Dulwich in London and a participant on the Future Leaders leadership development programme.

Further information
Future Leaders are required to do an Impact Initiative, such as Ed’s above, each year to ensure they are making an impact for the most disadvantaged pupils. Applications for Future Leaders Cohort 2013 are now open. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk or contact 0800 009 4142.


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