Resource Hub Case Studies

Attendance Management: Stratford Upon Avon School

Attendance Management: Stratford Upon Avon School

/ Mark London

Innovating new methods to improve attendance at Stratford Upon Avon School

Stratford Upon Avon School is a secondary school in Warwickshire with over 1700 pupils. Like many other schools, it has been exploring new ways to tackle the rise in absenteeism triggered by the pandemic. We sat down with Jo Wilkinson (Attendance Improvement Officer) to discuss the innovative measures they have put in place at student- and parent-level to improve attendance, and how Bromcom MIS is helping.

The drivers of the absence epidemic

Although there are a diverse number of causes behind the current attendance problem, for Jo there are three main strands to the issue. The first is the positive experience SEN students had with virtual schooling, as she explains:

“During Covid, SEN students – especially those with ASD – thrived when they could work from home. They were in a comfortable environment with no noise where they could see their teachers alone on camera. They were willing to learn in a space where they did not have to face the elements of the modern school that they did not like, and as a result, a lot of them did their best work during the pandemic.”

The SEN cohort’s reluctance to return is one of the most notable absence trends the school has spotted since Covid. And with a sizable jump in applications for neurodiverse children, parents are clearly more aware of neurodiversity and mental health.

“When we were in the pandemic, parents had more time to focus on the needs of their children. At the same time, it was often reported in the media that schools were not properly supporting SEN students which gave parents’ something they could challenge schools on.” Jo continues, “While it is in the main positive that parents started to look into extra support for their children or whether they needed something different from school, the downside is it has made it harder to get SEN pupils back into school.”

The second reason − and possibly the most impactful driver of the absence problem − is the “seismic shift” in many parents’ attitudes to schools. According to Joanne, this is one of the hardest obstacles to improving attendance:

“Parental disengagement can be a challenge. However, In the current climate and more than ever before, as a school, we do need to tailor our approach and be very mindful when dealing with parents or carers, as families may be facing financial hardship, deprivation, emotional concerns, in need of guidance, and may even be vulnerable themselves. We must demonstrate a genuine desire to understand our families concerns, to try and appreciate a day in their shoes, often with increased sensitivity and care. However, we must also act with professional curiosity with challenge/conviction to remove barriers to learning and reduce absence.

The priority message for all staff, parents/carers and students to remember is that students must be in school to be educated and that every single day and every lesson matters. Getting the balance right whether in meetings or on the phone is vital, to retain and develop parent/carer engagement. The ‘known knowns’ are key.”

Addressing the belief among parents that children do not need to go into school every day is critical not just to improve attendance now, but to avoid absence problems in the future.

“If a parent’s negative view of school is being discussed in the home environment, that will be adopted by the child,” Jo explains. “So how can we expect students to then listen to us when we tell them that every lesson matters?”

The third main cause of absences, according to Jo, is closely linked to parents’ working from home.

“Children are much more likely to stay off school when their parents are working from home. It does not matter how good the child is or how well they are doing academically; if there is an opportunity to stay home with mum or dad – particularly on a Friday – it is very tempting. Just as children are taking advantage of their parents being home, parents are condoning it.”

Encouraging attendance among students

One of the most impactful changes the school has put in place to improve attendance within the past year is turning their medical room into an attendance support room.

“A lot of kids think if they go to the nurse they will get a pass to go home,” Jo says. “But now they have to go to the attendance support room, where  there are dedicated staff  waiting for them who will provide support to the children who do not need to go home, and send home the children who do need to.

“They also keep a log of children asking to go home so they can catch out persistent offenders and spot patterns that may be causing attendance issues, for example, one child might always be saying they are ill and need to go home at the same time on a Monday before PE. They are now catching students that before Covid may have slipped through the net and been sent home with a headache.”

This new facility has been a “godsend” for the children that did not have a typical Year 7 transition during the pandemic, as Joanne continues:

“We’ve found these students’ resilience is very low in some cases, but the system is now designed to catch those students and make sure they receive the support they need.”

Jo is trying to change children’s attitude towards attendance by fostering the belief that every lesson matters, as well.

“When you have the odd duvet day, you are not missing one day of school. You are missing five lessons. And in those lessons, there may have been homework which you will now have missed. Those days quickly add up and can impact a child’s attainment.”

Rethinking the approach to parents

According to Jo, rebuilding the weakened relationship between school and parents comes down to approaching them in a new, softer way as to avoid alienating them further.

“Everything I do with parents has had to be modified. Letters needs to be very carefully worded now and we have had to put so much more thought into delivery. When I speak with parents, for instance, I have to talk about pastoral support rather than my attendance concern as the primary driver of the conversation, and then I slip in their child’s absences.”

Although dealing with the parent-side of the absence problem is schools’ “toughest battle”, their new approach to parents has resulted in better attendance.

Stratford Upon Avon School’s response

Because managing attendance has become a much bigger and more critical task since Covid, Jo needs more from the school’s MIS, as she explains:

“Every day I look at attendance patterns for absent children. Are they having every other Tuesday off? Are they regularly in school on Monday and Friday? With so many children absent so regularly now, I have to do this for a lot of children. We have got nearly 1800 students so across a seven-period day I am looking through 13,000 marks a day.

“I also compile attendance reports for college leaders on a weekly basis so we can go through all the known knowns together and build an accurate picture of attendance.”

The attendance team has always been able to access the relevant information and reports they need quickly and efficiently since they moved to Bromcom six years ago. Despite the greater need for more data and data analysis since Covid, the MIS has kept up.

“Everything I need for data analysis, attendance, and reporting is there. There is nothing I need that I cannot have access to. Whether it is the daily function of inputting all the absences, pulling reports for pastoral leads, or providing information for governors, it is all in Bromcom.”