Strategies for reversing poor school attendance

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The charity School-Home Support works with families and schools to tackle poor attendance. Jan Tallis describes some of their most effective interventions.

In order to improve the attainment of some of the most deprived children and make the most effective use of the Pupil Premium, schools should be working with families to address the underlying issues behind children’s barriers to education.

There are nearly 300,000 pupils across schools in England who are persistently absent from school, missing an average of six weeks of school each year and often a lot more.

Poor attendance is the first step in a long-term cycle of low attainment, anti-social behaviour, crime and unemployment, generation after generation.

However, we also know that with the right interventions, persistent absence can be tackled.

School-Home Support (SHS) is a charity that partners with schools to tackle poor attendance. We do this by addressing the root causes of the issues that are preventing children from attending school. These interventions increase attendance on average by 34 days – and 64 per cent of young people make academic improvement within the academic year.

SHS partners with schools in a number of ways. We directly place SHS practitioners in schools to work with the schools and families to address the underlying issues behind low attendance. We know that many schools employ pastoral staff to provide this support, so we have built on our expertise to provide training, consultancy and supervision to these staff so that they can more effectively support children and families. 

Here we provide some advice on the key interventions that schools and pastoral teams can use to support families to increase their children’s attendance and attainment.

Identifying children/families in need

It is important to identify the children who are not attending enough school and those where their home lives are affecting their ability to make the most out of their education. 

Department for Education statistics reveal that children who are eligible for free school meals are more than three times more likely to be persistently absent than other children. Furthermore, recent research by SHS found that children who are persistently absent face a number of multiple and overlapping needs within the home, including substance misuse, mental and physical health issues, housing issues, poor family relationships and poverty.

While absence is easy to monitor within school and it is easy to identify those children not attending, it is important that teachers and pastoral staff identify those children who may be attending school, but due to issues at home, are either poorly behaved or not able to concentrate in class, impacting on their attainment. 

This is more challenging and requires good communication between teachers and the pastoral team, so that when a teacher has a concern they can pass it on to the pastoral staff to follow up and begin engaging with the parents.

Parental engagement

Parents want the best for their children, but in some cases parents can have a number of complex needs which prevent them giving their child’s education the attention it deserves. 

It is important that schools work with families to address this, rather than against them. When a child is referred to an SHS practitioner, or a member of the school’s pastoral team, the first step is to begin engaging with the parents or carers. 

Parents can be fearful of attending school meetings, due to their own experiences at school or because they see schools and teachers as authority figures and are worried about what might happen if they do open up about the challenges they are facing. 

Staff who liaise with the home are therefore advised to offer to meet parents in a setting in which they feel comfortable, such as their home or a community setting. This helps to break down the barrier between home and school and demonstrates that you are there to work with the family, not against them. 

SHS practitioners run a number of different events, such as coffee mornings and book clubs so that parents can meet others in similar circumstances and build up a support network. 

Group sessions and parenting courses such as Triple P and Strengthening Families Strengthening Communities (SFSC) are effective at improving parenting skills and we also provide classes such as English as a second language.

This reinforces to parents the importance of education for their children. In 2013/14, 98 per cent of the parents SHS worked with reported that they were more engaged in their child’s learning.

While we provide a supportive relationship, it is also important to provide a challenging one. When actions are agreed, they must be followed up to ensure that they have been carried through. For example, if a child does not attend schools the practitioner must call the home or drop by to find out what the problem is and take the child to school if necessary.

Addressing student behavioural issues

Young people do not usually kick-off in the classroom without a cause – there is normally an underlying reason for the poor behaviour. To change this behaviour we need to get to and tackle the root cause.

This often involves a practitioner working closely with the family at home and with other professionals from community services. If a child is not sleeping at night because they have to share a blow-up bed with their mum and sisters, they are not going to be able to concentrate at school. If a young person is witnessing domestic violence at home, this is likely to have an impact on their behaviour and ability to form positive relationships.

Alongside work at home, there are a number of interventions that can take place within the school, working directly with the young people to overcome behavioural issues. SHS practitioners do a lot of one-to-one and group work with young people, addressing issues such as positive relationships and friendships. 

These sessions usually take place during break times. However, sometimes it is necessary to put sessions on during lesson time. Teachers can understandably be wary of letting students out of class, especially in cases where they have already missed a lot of school.

It is therefore vital that teachers and pastoral teams communicate effectively and there is an understanding of the benefit such work will have. If a student is being disruptive or is not in a place to concentrate on their work, that time may be better spent addressing the problems so that next time, the student can make better use of the teaching time. 

Joint working

Children and families can face a number of overlapping needs which have an impact on their education. It is important that schools do not act as silos, but are part of the wider community, working closely with local services.

Practitioners and pastoral staff should build strong relationships with these agencies and ensure that children and families get the range of interventions they need to overcome their challenges. Some of the key agencies that SHS practitioners worked with in the past year were housing and mental health services, as well as crisis support agencies such as food banks and domestic violence services. 

Supporting pastoral staff

In order for pastoral teams to give this help effectively, it is important that they receive the support and training necessary. Given the work they do, it is important that pastoral staff receive appropriate practice-based supervision to discuss and reflect on their work and the emotions brought up by it.

Often practitioners will spend more time with families at home or in other services than they do at school. It is important that they have the freedom to make informed decisions about how best to support families in order to improve the attainment of pupils.

Conclusion

We know that this support has a great impact on schools and families. The outcomes from schools demonstrate improvements in attainment for the most disadvantaged children, while also significantly improving family’s quality of life.

  • Jan Tallis is chief executive of School-Home Support, a national charity that tackles the underlying issues that affect a child’s ability to make the most of their education. Visit www.schoolhomesupport.org.uk and find SHS on Twitter @SHSorgUK

 


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