Written evidence submitted by EdAct

I am writing to you further to your call for evidence on the topic of school attendance, and the factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils.

I am Chief Executive of EdAct, a small multi-academy trust comprising a primary school, dual campus secondary school, a further secondary school, and a special school.

I write to you in my capacity as CEO of EdAct but I am also a member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, and a member of the Timpson Review Group on Exclusions and the Behaviour in Schools Group, led by Tom Bennett.

I broadly support the DfE’s Improving School attendance: support for schools and local authorities. It provides good advice giving actions that schools can adopt readily. We haven’t changed our practice because of the guidance as we already go beyond the actions suggested, but it provided a good reminder of the things that ‘work’.

In our schools we have a range of strategies that include:

Our schools serve the communities of Edmonton and Ponders End, including some of our country’s most economically and socially disadvantaged people.  Our schools are populated with children from a broad range of ethnicities, and we have high levels of social need and many families have English as an additional language. We have a large proportion of both Somali and Turkish families; a characteristic of both communities is that many of the mothers have a poor command of English. Therefore, letters and other written communications are translated into community languages and we have staff who act as ad hoc translators as well as family liaison workers employed to work directly with people from these communities.

Over the period of about 10 years, we have seen consistent levels of authorised absence but stubbornly increasing levels of unauthorised absence that eventually declined.

Authorised absence

Our Trust policy is to require an explanation from parents regarding any absence from school. Parents are asked to telephone or email the school to tell us if their child is going to be absent from school and in the absence of a notification, if the child is not marked present at the first registration point of the day, a text is sent to the parent prompting a call. Electronic registration and the link to text facility has helped us to do this. If no response is received a phone call is made, using alternative numbers if required. This is a very intensive resource but we know that parents appreciate the effort. Our schools are in areas where there is street crime and very busy traffic zones (the A10 is one of London’s busiest roads). And this is a clear safeguarding responsibility. This effort means that our average authorised absence is circa 5%.

Pupils are registered 6 times each day- at the start of each lesson and in form time. This means that punctuality is tackled and there is virtually no in-school truancy. If children are late to school, they go into a ‘late detention’ that day. Punctuality is good as there is a strong link between being late and the sanction. We use teachers directed time to ensure that lessons start promptly, and senior leaders ensure that children are in classrooms on time too. 

On my patrol of one school this morning, I observed that many lessons started well before the bell!

Unauthorised and Persistent Absence

The levels of persistent absence, where a child is absent for 10% or more of sessions was increasing and we were very concerned about this and that our strategy needed to change.

Some of the changes coincided with our change to academy status where we were able to take advantage of the freedoms associated with that status. 

Previously, as a maintained local authority school we were required to follow the prescribed dates for holidays set down by the LA.  We noticed that where we had incomplete weeks in the school year that absence was particularly high. For example, if the last two days of the school year were on Monday and Tuesday, we had very low attendance rates, with large numbers of pupils, particularly Turkish children, going to Turkey the weekend before term ended. Similarly, if the school year commenced on say Wednesday, many pupils returned to this country the following Saturday, and to school on Monday. This meant that up to 35% of our school population was missing at least 5 days of the school year.  We manage our school year so that there are no shortened weeks and this combined with other strategies has helped to reduce absence at the start and end of the school term.

However, this has not been sufficient to reduce absence for holidays. Unfortunately, the costs of travel are significantly higher during the school holidays compared with in-term times. We do not suffer from families going on holidays for skiing or sightseeing, it is a holiday to see family. We have large numbers of children who spend the school holidays in the country they call ‘home’; it is by no means unusual for children to go to Pakistan, India, Turkey, Greece etc for the entire summer vacation. We have identified children where their parents were sending them at the end of the term and asked the parent to come to school. We have made it clear that this must not be done, it is unauthorised absence and a firm talk by a senior member of staff has made some difference. However, if the process of issuing fixed penalties, and they were significantly higher, was possible then I think we could tackle this more effectively. As it stands, the LA is too slow to issue the penalties and in themselves they do not act as a sufficient deterrent.

If there are concerns about attendance or the child is at risk of becoming a persistent absentee

Where children are persistent absentees or there are concerns about absence, our policy is as follows:

Attendance Officer will contact parents/carers either by letter or telephone call to establish reasons for absence and provide necessary support to improve. Student Managers will speak to students to establish any concerns and offer support.

Four-week review – no improvement

Progress Leader will offer further support and a Level 1 meeting with parents/carers will be held. Targets will be set, and internal/external support will be arranged if appropriate.

Assistant Headteacher will invite parents/carers into school for a Level 2 meeting if they are not engaging with school or accessing support provided and attendance is still declining. EWO process explained, and targets set.

Four-week review no improvement

Senior Leadership Team member will invite parents/carers and student in for a level 2 meeting.

Four-week review - no improvement

Education Welfare Officer will be contacted by process of Early Help Referral from school so further measures can be put in place to support the family and so that legal avenues can be pursued if necessary.

Factors affecting attendance

We have identified several issues that are factors in school attendance:

1)      Some families, particularly from African nations, have experienced education that is optional or where there was little in the way of consequences for non-attendance. Also, some families have negative experiences with institutions and there will be antipathy or a reluctance to engage with the school.

2)      When a child is ill, access to a GP is problematic, either because the family isn’t registered with a practice or it is difficult to secure an appointment. The pandemic has meant that some families are more cautious in their approach and will keep the child at home if they have any of the covid symptoms

3)      In several families, the older child is responsible for taking the younger ones to school. Hence, where the older child is ill, the others don’t go to school

4)      The educational experience of children during the pandemic was very limited. Despite the DfE’s laptop programme, several children for example were trying to attend on-line lessons on a phone.  Many children were sent abroad during the pandemic and very little contact was possible. Consequently, children have disengaged from school and/or have made little progress. For children with SEND, this has led to accentuated learning needs that we are tackling.

5)      Children’s mental health. There is no question that there are heightened anxieties and concerns. We have seen children reluctant to speak in front of a class, perform music. For those with more acute mental health concerns, referrals to CAMHS do not offer an early resolution. We employ our own educational psychologist and counselling team; this provides the staff and children with advice and support, but the demand considerably overwhelms the supply.

6)      The Government’s promotion of Mental Health Leads is a good start, but it needs to be part of a plan to ensure that there is support for children in school and adequate CAMHS support for acute cases.

7)      The Government’s curriculum reforms have created a curriculum that for the least able offers a less attractive and meaningful experience.

Breakfast Clubs and Holiday Clubs

Before the pandemic we operated successful breakfast clubs. It is difficult to quantify the impact on attendance but anecdotally, it helped to bring children to school earlier and ensure that they were fed and ready for a day’s work. Unfortunately, the staff who operated the clubs did not return after the pandemic or have been deployed to other essential areas of operation, caused by staff shortages. The pressures on the Trust and school budgets mean that to re-start the breakfast clubs is prohibitively costly. The major factor in the budget has been the lack of funding to support the pay award and the significant increase in energy costs.

Similarly, we have previously delivered holiday clubs for children in year 6 as they prepare for year 7, across the Trust. We have prioritised this from our budget but have faced several challenges that include; a reluctance on the part of teachers to do work during the holidays, lack of alternative employees, reduction in charity and third sector groups to support the schemes.  Teachers and other staff are saying that they feel pressured and exhausted, and the extra money isn’t sufficient incentive to encourage them to participate in the holiday clubs.

In summary

Improving attendance to school could be improved as follows:

Attending school is fundamental to a child’s development and well-being. Anecdotally, I would suggest that most schools take them duty to improve attendance seriously but there are things that Government could do to bring about further improvement. As the above demonstrate, I hope, there is a need for school leaders to focus on the analysis of the barriers and to actively lead the strategy to bring about improvement.

January 2023