PA0165

Written evidence submitted by Wallingford School

 

Wallingford School is an 11-18 school in South Oxfordshire – part of the Merchant Taylors Oxfordshire Academy Trust.

 

Background information

(Years 7-11 are represented below – not Sixth Form)

 

Total population

Disadvantaged

SEND

No.on roll

1104

167

231

Attendance %

w/c 23/01/2023

89.17%

79.69%

81.43%

 

Question 1:

The factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils, in particular:

 

Within Wallingford School we have the greatest numbers of students in the following groups:

-          Disadvantaged pupils

-          Pupils with SEND

-          Pupils in alternative provision

All responses which follow will address the issues and opportunities relating to these three groups.

Of these groups, the attendance is currently best amongst those who attend alternative provision (AP). At Wallingford School we don’t access AP until KS4 and when we do it is to work up a bespoke programme for each student. They become ‘dual registered’ (us and the AP setting) at provisions that have a DfE number. When we take into account the days they are present in AP their attendance is stronger as they are in settings that best meet their needs.

Our SEND student population is characterised by a high number of students with severe anxiety issues as well as high levels of autism. The reality is that many of these students wouldn’t ordinarily be in a mainstream setting – despite us striving for (and being commended at our recent OFSTED inspection for) high levels of inclusion. The setting just isn’t appropriate for them and causes them extreme levels of anxiety and distress. We make many changes where we can to adapt the approach in the school to take account of needs but one thing we cannot change to a great enough extent is the school environment. Many of our SEND students with autism find it just too big and yet are considered to be able to have their needs met in a mainstream setting. They need to be in smaller specialist settings to achieve improved attendance.

There are a wide variety of reasons impacting the attendance of our disadvantaged students. Some have caring responsibilities within their family – for example dropping siblings at other schools. Others are dealing with the poor mental health of a parent an low levels of parental resilience which impacts their ability to attend. There are transport issues in some cases and also we see incidences of students who are simply unable to see the value of school (perhaps due to a parent’s own negative experience of school) and lack a connection to the school community - often exacerbated by the poor attendance – so a vicious cycle. Consistent attendance can be complicated by the involvement and/or lack of involvement of social care services. There is sometimes a perceived lack of support from both the school and other agencies. This wide variety of issues facing our most disadvantaged students can make it hard for general attendance initiatives to be effective.

A further general challenge is in the change in parental attitudes in relation to school attendance since the pandemic. There is definitely a sense of ‘can you just pop something online’ to compensate for a student not being present in school, which of course is not a sustainable position in a school community of this size. Many more parents are working from home since the pandemic which means they can be more relaxed about whether children are in school or not given that supervision of a child absent from school is less of an issue. There is also a general underlying atmosphere that being present in school is no longer seen as the critical factor of success in education that it once was – given periods of extended absence from the school site during the pandemic.

 

Question 2: How can schools and families be better supported to deliver improved attendance?

Improved budgets to attract and retain staff in key roles: Resource stretch is a major factor compounding a school’s ability to address attendance issues. Deficiencies in the wider support service network have pushed greater responsibilities into schools and on school staff – for example lack of special school places, limited support from local authorities on attendance issues, extreme waiting lists for mental health support for students (many of whom often have severe issues now). This limits the amount of time available to invest in dealing with persistent absence. The resource stretch is compounded by recruitment issues – not just of teaching staff but also support staff. Wallingford School has not been able to recruit – and keep – an attendance officer and the post has been mostly vacant since September 2022. This means that routine support for following up non-attendance - such as ‘in touch messages’ to parents to let them know their child hasn’t turned up for school that day – as there just isn’t the resource to deliver this. What resource we do have is targeting persistent absence particularly amongst disadvantaged students but this increasingly needed to actually visit students’ houses to try and encourage behaviour as all previous interventions haven’t been effective.

Stronger reinforcement of attendance breaches by Local Authorities: Post-Covid we have seen an increase in parents taking their children out of school for holidays. Initially this was due to postponement of breaks which were then rescheduled with limited control over dates for the families. Families continue to make discretionary choices to take holidays in term time. Penalty notices can be issued in these circumstances. In previous years the Local Authority had the capacity to join meetings with families where attendance was an issue however this now seems to not happen on a regular basis. Our previous experience is that where attendance referrals have been made it has rarely resulted in prosecution. The increased number of stages to action before a referral is made has grown considerably. 

A clear review and prioritised investment in support services: Mainstream schools are now required to take the lead in dealing with specialist areas such as student mental health issues, social care support and a wide range of special needs requirements – some extreme. This is mainly due to the over stretch in support agencies. The whole infrastructure around children and families needs a thorough review to ensure that children are attending the educational setting that best suits their needs and that they have the support in place to do so confidently and consistently.

Strong reinforcement at a national and local level, as well as a school level of the importance of being in school: At Wallingford we have instigated a communication campaign with parents to reinforce the importance of attendance and to follow this up proactively with termly attendance statistics sent to parents for each student. This would be well supported by other campaign activity reaching parents via local routes and also nationally via government campaigns. National and local campaign activity would have the benefit of approaching parents through channels not accessible to the school.

 

Questions 4 and 5

These are taken together:

-          The impact of school breakfast clubs and free school meals on improving the attendance for disadvantaged pupils.

-          The role of the Holiday Activities and Food programme and other after school and holiday clubs, such as sports, in improving attendance and engagement with school

 

Most of the above initiatives have had very little impact in the experience of our school. The notable exception has been the Food Voucher scheme which has proved successful – particularly in recent months – in increasing engagement. For the Christmas period, for the first time, we have seen all food vouchers accessed since the scheme began. This has been significantly impacted by our Pupil Premium Champion making contact with families where access hadn’t been actioned.

 

February 2023