In September 2022 the DfE guidance Working Together to Improve School Attendance came into effect. It should be considered together with statutory documents in relation to safeguarding. Good school attendance is an urgent priority for all schools, more so since the pandemic, because we know that absence from school leads to poor outcomes, particularly for vulnerable children. Poor attendance is a potential safeguarding risk.
A Vital Warning Sign
It is important that we understand that recognising children missing education can act as a vital warning sign for a range of safeguarding issues such as neglect, sexual abuse, child sexual and criminal exploitation. Following some tragic cases, Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022 (KCSIE 2022)now states that schools and colleges should record more than one emergency contact number for each child or student. This is for safeguarding reasons and is vitally important when it is not possible to contact parents/carers.
It is crucial that we identify the low-attenders and find out the reasons for the poor attendance. There should be clear actions, interventions and regular reviews. If one intervention does not work, this should not prevent further attempts from being made (1) to develop a positive relationship between children, parents and school staff (2) any intervention should include checking whether a child is struggling with school-work i.e. is the level of support having an impact where children who are regularly absent are struggling with work? (3) to check whether the poor attendance and disengagement from school is a symptom of low attainment thereby causing a vicious circle. Indeed KCSIE 2022 states that designated safeguarding leads should take lead responsibility for promoting educational outcomes of children in need. Part of this is identifying the impact such issues might be having on attendance, engagement and achievement.
Children should feel that schools are safe and welcoming places; boundaries and clear routines are important to help reinforce a positive culture of good attendance. The Children’s Commissioner carried out The Big Ask survey in 2021, where the cases of 1900 children with poor attendance were considered. The survey highlighted that attendance has a key role to play in children’s life chances. Understanding children’s individual experiences and their day-to-day life is a key element of professional curiosity and to improving attendance. The children who were part of the survey cited unhappiness at school as the biggest obstacle to regular school attendance, particularly those with SEND, poor physical health, victims of bullying and those with mental health issues.
Emotionally Based School Avoidance
This is a relatively new term used to describe children who have difficulty in attending school due to emotional needs, anxiety and mental ill health. Poor attendance can include both prolonged absences from school or patterns of sporadic absences. Transition times e.g. key stages, year groups, can exacerbate the problem. It is important to remember that behaviours are a communication of adverse childhood experiences, an emotional need or unmet need, and this is also linked to attendance matters. The terminology we use can be misleading e.g., ‘school refusers’ implies children have control over their attendance which isn’t the case with children who are anxious or have other emotional needs. There are ways of creating a sense of belonging, by giving them a responsibility, continuous communication even when not at school, protected quality time with a safe, trusted adult every day, offering space spaces that are not stigmatising e.g. the library, and creating consistent routines that are visible, can help children develop that sense of belonging and safety which could lead to improved attendance.
School and Parental Responsibilities
Does your school expect parents to make contact whenever their child is absent to give a reason for the absence? When parents do not provide a reason, it is crucial that there is a first-day response system, whereby they will be contacted on the first day of absence. If after this, the child still does not attend school and there is no explanation for this, communication with home should be regular and continuous. This is to ensure the child is safeguarded.
When Parents do not Engage and Attendance is Still Poor
If the child’s attendance is still poor despite the school’s efforts, the guidance says that support should be intensified by children’s social care where there are safeguarding concerns, particularly where there is ‘severe’ absence of 50% or less.
Since the pandemic, more children have been absent from school. There are several reasons for this including isolation, illness or existing risk factors impacting school attendance becoming worse. Persistent absence is most common for vulnerable children, particularly those from deprived areas. Nearly half of persistent absentees live in the 30% highest areas of child poverty.
Regular attendance at school is key to safeguarding vulnerable children. The DfE reported in 2021 that children with SEND, have CIN or CP plans and those living in poverty are more likely to be persistent absentees. If a child is regularly absent, be aware they could be involved in child criminal exploitation or sexual exploitation – please see Annex B of KCSIE 2022 for signs. Concerns about school attendance usually indicate the child may be experiencing serious problems.
Schools are responsible for the safeguarding and welfare of pupils educated off-site as well as on-site. They do not hand over responsibility for the safeguarding of children to the providers of alternative education (AP). KCSIE states that schools should be satisfied that providers meet children’s needs. It is crucial therefore that schools and alternative education providers work together to ensure children are kept safe. These children can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation and a range of other harms, so extra vigilance is key. Dual registration is compulsory, even when they are at AP full-time. If your school uses code B in the attendance register for a child who is attending alternative provision, you are certifying that the education is supervised and that there are measures in place to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare.
Training and Development
School staff should be trained in attendance matters, as part of induction so that there is an understanding of the importance of good school attendance because absences may be linked to wider circumstances and poor attendance is a safeguarding issue. Every member of staff should know and understand their responsibilities relating to attendance.
If a child is regularly absent from school, a team around the child meeting can bring together early help professionals and a number of other agencies eg school nurse, educational psychology. The multi-agency network can find out further information and make decisions, with the school, on the best way forward considering the best interests of the child.
In cases where attendance is very poor or ‘severe’ and the parent is not engaging, schools should formalise intervention through child in need assessments and child protection plans which can provide more intense support by including expectations to improve attendance, thereby safeguarding the child. The DfE advises that parenting contracts and education supervision orders should be used fairly and consistently.
Top Tips for Best Safeguarding Practice
- Have a designated attendance champion in the senior leadership team
- Ensure escalation procedures to address absence are initiated proactively, understood by children and families, implemented consistently and their impact reviewed regularly
- Track attendance to ensure any patterns are identified so that support can be offered early on
- Ensure there is a first-day response system in place to call parents where no explanation is given about their child’s absence – it is important that schools take the time and use resources available to get beneath the reasons for absence
- Follow up with regular telephone calls and contact with the home when the child does not return to school
- Where absences are 50% or below, work with statutory services to provide more intensive support
- Do not use Code B for children in alternative provision, unless you are certain they are attending and that they are being safeguarded
- Use positive affirmations when the child is in school, e.g. ‘I’m really happy that you’ve come into school today’
- Offer mindfulness activities to make them feel relaxed and positive e.g. mindful colouring, breathing, yoga
- Use additional strategies such as anti-bullying programmes, buddying, mentoring and teaching coping strategies
- Offer support making use of the power of peer support, e.g. circle of friends, school council membership, social skills groups etc.