l - February 2023

Written evidence submitted by Reconnect London


Introduction to Reconnect London


Reconnect London is a practitioner-led network of school leaders who are working together to support disadvantaged and vulnerable children in the capital. The network was started in December 2020, after a ministerial round table about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s attendance and engagement at school. Following this, a core leadership group and steering group were established and a wide range of London school and system leaders were invited to join the network.


Since that time, a regular series of network meetings has taken place, as well as discussions with ministerial, local government and Department for Education leaders. The Reconnect London network includes academies and local authority schools, as well as a wide range of partner organisations. We are driven by a shared commitment: to bring about positive change for disadvantaged and vulnerable young Londoners in the wake of the pandemic.


Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic


The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event that has hit London’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children hardest. Young Londoners have been deeply affected by lockdown and its aftermath, particularly those already experiencing disadvantage and vulnerability. This has, inevitably, had a significant negative impact on pupil attendance and has led to an increase in persistent absence.


Although pupil attendance in London schools has decreased post-pandemic, the capital appears to have been less adversely affected than some other parts of the country. We believe this is partly a result of the work that London headteachers have undertaken, over the last two decades, to put into place comprehensive strategies to improve and sustain pupil attendance. The issue is, nonetheless, of significant concern to members of our network owing to the implications for safeguarding, as well as the link between attendance, academic achievement and other pupil outcomes.


Causes of poor attendance and persistent absence


Headteachers within our network emphasize that the causes of poor attendance and persistent absence are complex and wide-ranging. It is therefore crucial that any changes in attendance policy take account of this complexity, to ensure that strategies aimed at solving the issue are able to achieve their goals.


In most cases, absence from school is linked to genuine illness. We know, for example, that absence rates towards the end of the autumn term 2022 rose in line with increases in seasonal flu and other illnesses. Attendance rates then improved again at the start of the spring term, as illness rates decreased.


Another significant cause of poor attendance and persistent absence, according to members of our network, is mental health. This includes mental health difficulties faced by pupils and also, in some cases, mental health difficulties faced by other family members. We know that levels of diagnosis and self-reported experience of mental health difficulties have both increased following the pandemic. This inevitably impacts on pupil attendance.


Other causes of poor attendance and persistent absence reported by members of our network include:


The diverse range of causes of poor attendance mean that we need a diverse toolkit of solutions to address the issue. We also need to be conscious of the links between attendance and the health difficulties which some clinically vulnerable children have experienced post-pandemic, which is a strong driver of low attendance in special schools and also has an impact on mainstream schools.


A strategic approach to improving attendance


The Education Endowment Foundation have reported that we do not yet understand enough about the strategies which are most effective in improving pupil attendance. We are looking forward to the outcome of further research in this area and the provision of further guidance to schools.


In the meantime, when it comes to improving pupil attendance, evidence from our network suggests that the most effective approaches combine three things:


Our members are clear that there needs to be a balance of high challenge and high support. Punitive approaches and sanctions for parents do not work unless they are accompanied by the provision of additional help, guidance and support. Approaches also need to be appropriate for different groups, e.g. different strategies are needed to address poor attendance amongst primary age children compared with older teenagers.


Headteachers report that they are in danger of alienating parents when they over-emphasize sanctions and are not sufficiently focused on understanding the causes of poor attendance and providing support for the most vulnerable. They also caution against an over-emphasis on rewarding good attendance, since this can be damaging for those who are not able to attend school every day as a result of factors outside of their control (e.g. acute or chronic health conditions). Some schools have moved away from rewarding ‘100% attendance’ because of concern that this may unfairly exclude disabled children or others who are legitimately unable to attend school every day.


The majority of schools within our network have comprehensive whole-school attendance strategies in place. A typical attendance strategy sets out:


School leaders are aware of the importance of robust accountability in relation to attendance and are regularly scrutinised about their work on attendance by governors, trustees and local authority officials.


Approaches taken by schools to improve attendance


Within our network, a wide range of approaches have been put into place by schools to manage and improve attendance. Often, the aim is not only to improve attendance but also to have a wider impact on pupils and families. For example, one nursery school in east London has introduced a toy and clothing exchange within their reception area. When parents bring children to school, they are able to take things they need and also exchange them with other families. As well as encouraging attendance, this also supports sustainability and provides additional help for those experiencing the most disadvantage.


This is one example of the kind of innovative approach that many schools are taking. Other approaches which have proven to be effective in schools within our network include:


Impact of breakfast clubs, free school meals and holiday activities


Headteachers within our network believe that the provision of free or subsidised breakfast clubs and free school meals have a positive impact on pupil attendance. They emphasize the importance of ensuring that all pupils can take part in clubs and enrichment activities, with even low levels of cost a barrier to some families. Additionally, headteachers emphasize the importance of taking a relational approach which focuses on building personal relationships with children and families. This includes regular phone-calls home, meetings and home visits. In this way, schools are able to gain insight into the complexity of the issues which families are facing and thereby determine which strategies are most likely to be effective in improving pupils’ attendance.


February 2023


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