Absence rates are still a concern in some schools

Earlier today the DfE published the results of the data collected about pupils’ absence from school during the autumn term of 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2017 Not a lot had changed since the previous autumn term and the overall picture has remained broadly at the same level now for three years. However, as the DfE concede, – levels of authorised absence have decreased, while the levels of unauthorised absence has increased.

For state-funded primary and secondary schools, the authorised absence rate decreased from 3.3 per cent in autumn 2016 to 3.2 per cent in autumn 2017 and the unauthorised absence rate increased from 1 per cent in autumn 2016 to 1.1 per cent in autumn 2017. Part of the increase was down to the fact that that the level of absence among persistent absentees rose slightly from 11.4 per cent in autumn 2016 to 11.5 per cent in autumn 2017.

Illness is the most common reason for absence and heavily influences overall absence rates.  It accounted for 58.3 per cent of all absence in autumn 2017, a lower proportion than seen in previous years; it was 58.4 per cent in autumn 2016 and 58.8 per cent in 2015. This variation from autumn term to autumn term can be the result of winter illness patterns and in particular whether the flu season starts early or not. The level of absence for religious reasons is also variable from year to year; depending upon when major moveable festivals appear in the calendar. In 2017, there were some dates that fell outside of term time and that reduced the number of days pupils were absent.

Authorised family holidays are now very largely a thing of the past, but there is still an upward trend in days lost to unauthorised holidays, albeit the increase from the previous year was relatively slight. For some families the fine can be seen as just another expense as part of the overall holiday costs and if the holiday price is cheaper in term time there may actually be a cash saving even if it can affect a child’s education.

Interestingly, just over a quarter of pupils had no recorded absence in the autumn term. However, the trend towards not arriving on time is gathering pace, with 266,905 recorded occurrences. Not a huge number, but the highest figure for the past few years.

I fear 14-18 schools frequently seem to appear close to the top of the list of schools with well above average absence rates. In Oxfordshire, three of the eight schools with the worst overall absence rates are 14-18 schools. I need to check whether there are issues about how some pupil activities in these schools are recorded. Otherwise, it seems likely that turning schools into academies hasn’t proved a magic bullet in terms of curing high levels of absence: leadership is, I suspect, much more important than school organisation in bringing down absence rates. It might be worth asking MATs how much of their central funds are aimed at reducing absence rates in schools where it might be an issue?

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Absence rates

The moveable feast that is Easter might have caused the end to the downward trend of pupil absences during the first two terms of last year. In 2017 Easter was a couple of weeks later than in 2016. A date in April, when the weather is better, might well have caused part of the upward movement in unauthorised absences, due to family holidays. No doubt going a week before Easter would be cheaper for families and might be worth the risk of a fine across the whole cost to the family. The uncertainty earlier in the year, before the Supreme Court ruled in the Isle of Wight case might also have persuaded some families to take an autumn break during term time.

Nevertheless, it is worth wondering whether the downward trend that started in the mid-2000s might well be levelling off. The increase in secondary pupil rolls over the next few years could well contribute to an upward trend, especially if schools struggle to keep all these extra pupils in lessons. No doubt, better recording of absences and missing episodes during the school day, will also contribute to the overall figures.

The DfE continues to make it harder to pinpoint actual schools in the data, by no longer publishing their names in the tables: researchers have to use the URN or other identified to work out where schools are placed in the tables. Undoubtedly, 14-18 schools, such as studio Schools and UTCs often come out badly as they have the year groups where unauthorised absence is often at its highest.  It is worth looking at their trends over a period of two to three years to see if there has been any improvement.

Perhaps the most worrying fact in the DfE Statistical Bulletin https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/652689/SFR55_2017_text.pdf is that the percentage of enrolments in state-funded primary and state-funded secondary schools that were classified as persistent absentees in autumn/spring 2016/17 was 10.4 per cent. This is slightly higher than the equivalent figure of 10.3 per cent in autumn and spring 2015/16. Again, the upward movement might partly be down to the different Easter dates. Nevertheless, one in ten pupils classified as persistent absentees must be a concern even though the definition was changed a couple of years ago. In some schools, the figures is much higher. Interestingly, the schools with the greater percentage of unauthorised absence doesn’t seem to be an inner city school but one located in a large market town: the sort of town one might expect to have relatively low levels of such absence.

As the DfE Statistical Bulletin points out, Illness remains the most common reason for absence, accounting for 60.1 per cent of all absences. The percentage of possible sessions missed due to illness has remained the same since last year at 2.7 per cent. But, it was a relatively mild winter. Pupils in national curriculum year groups 10 and 11 had the highest overall absence rate at 5.8 per cent. This trend is repeated for persistent absence.

Pupils with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) or education healthcare plan (EHC) had an overall absence rate of 7.1 per cent compared to 4.2 per cent for those with no identified SEN. The percentage of pupils with a statement of SEN or an EHC plan that are persistent absentees is more than two times higher than the percentage for pupils with no identified SEN.

 

Absence trend still downward

Yesterday the DfE issued its annual statistical bulletin on school attendance and absence rates. You can read it at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/561152/SFR51_2016_text.pdf There are also accompanying tables detailing information at local authority and even at individual school levels, but you might have to do a bit of cross-checking with Edubase to identify school names this year.

Generally, overall rate remained stable. The overall rates are heavily influenced by illness, so either a bad winter with lots of flu and other illnesses or a mild illness free winter can affect the figures in one direction or the other. The bulletin notes that

“The overall absence rate across state-funded primary and secondary schools decreased slightly from 4.5 per cent in autumn/spring 2014/15 to 4.4 per cent in autumn/spring 2015/16. The overall absence rate in primary schools decreased from 4.0 per cent to 3.9 per cent and the rate in secondary schools decreased from 5.2 per cent to 5.0 per cent. The decrease in overall absence has been driven by a decrease in the authorised absence rate across state-funded primary and secondary schools – which fell from 3.6 per cent to 3.4 per cent between autumn/spring 2014/15 and autumn/spring 2015/16.”

The various rows about term-time holidays doesn’t seem to have overly affected these figures. Family holidays not sanctioned by the school accounted for 0.2% of absences compared with over 66% as a result of illness and the rate hadn’t changed from the previous year.

There is good news for the government on the drive to force down persistent absenteeism. However, one in ten pupils still missed 10% of more of schooling. In secondary schools this rose to nearly one pupil in every eight at 12.3%. This group are no doubt reflected in the under-performing students at GCSE. Sadly, 20% of pupils on Free School Meals were persistent absentees compared with only 8.2% of other pupils. Engaging these pupils with learning from an early age is still a key priority and the best way to close the gap in performance.

There is still much work to be undertaken with Pupil Referral Units where, perhaps not surprisingly, absence rates are still very high. In view of the reasons why pupils end up in PRUs this isn’t surprising, but more attention needs to be paid to this group. The Treasury might ask whether the wider benefits to society of re-engaging these young people with learning might be worth the spending involved in the short-term, especially if it could help identify what would reduce the entry numbers. A review of the effects of the EBacc orientated curriculum on these pupils before they are dispatched to a PRU might be worth the investment, although many would be willing to provide an answer now.

As in past years, Studio Schools and UTCs feature disproportionally in the top 20 secondary schools for absence rates. In view of the fact that Years 10 & 11 are years of high absence this isn’t perhaps totally surprising but it does raise the question of why some pupils have been persuade to move at the end of Year 9. A new start of a blessed release?

Will climate change improve school attendance?

While the furore about the issue of pupils being taken on holiday during term-time was hitting the media the government published the annual data for overall school attendance during the autumn term of 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2015

Whether it was a direct consequence of the mild autumn last year or due to other factors isn’t possible to determine from the published data, but the percentage of days lost dropped during the autumn term of 2015 in both the primary and secondary sectors. Overall, primary schools averaged 3.6% of sessions missed, with secondary schools averaging 4.6% in the autumn of 2015. This compares with 4.1% and 5.5% of sessions missed during the autumn term of 2011, in primary and secondary schools respectively.

In 2011, 74.8% of pupils missed at least one session due to absence, whereas in 2015 the percentage was 72.3%, the lowest recorded during this period. Just over two thirds of pupils had an authorised absence, whereas it was around one in five that had at least one unauthorised absence during the autumn term. There was little change in the percentage of pupils arriving late over the five year period, with fewer than one in 25 not making it on time. With all the pressures on family life, this seems like a great achievement in meeting deadlines which in some cases involve several different schools for the same family.

The number of sessions lost through illness was the lowest recorded during any autumn term during the past five years, even so it amounted to 3,664,030 sessions. This compared with a peak of 4,100,750 sessions lost to illness during the autumn term of 2012. Dental and medical appointments accounted for the second highest percentage of lost sessions. I wonder whether a seven day NHS will help reduce this lost schooling even further as it remains stubbornly high at nearly 19% of absences.

Authorised family holidays have fallen between 2011 and 2015, from 6.4% to just 1.1% of absences, whereas unauthorised holidays have increased from 2.9% to 4.2%. Overall, the number of pupils losing time through holidays dropped from 571,260 in 2011 to 343,625 in 2015, with the largest drop in the number of pupils allowed to be absent for an agreed family holiday.

The timing of certain religious events can affect the figures and the number of pupils with at least one day lost for religious observance increased from 78,000 in 2014 to more than 467,000 in 2015 beating the 427,000 total reached in 2013.

If warm dry weather improves school attendance, then this argues for a longer winter break and a shorter summer holidays. Such a pattern might also save schools money on heating bills, but would certainly put pressure on family holidays if more children were trying to go on holiday over a shorter period of time. Perhaps more cruise ships is one answer, with family cruises during the summer holidays using ships from the southern hemisphere that might otherwise be under-filled during their winter months.

Human Rights

There’s a great story in the Daily Mail today about a BBC programme to be shown on tuesday evening that follows a group of Chinese teachers when they spent four weeks teaching in a Hampshire comprehensive school. Result; teenagers need more discipline. That was pretty predicable.

But, the glorious line in the Daily Mail has the following quote from one of the teachers: ‘If the British Government really cut benefits down to force people to go to work they might see things in a different way.’ A Marxist Chinese teacher telling a Right Wing Tory government to cut benefits. I am indebted to LBC Radio for bringing this to my attention. Hopefully, they will also ask Jeremy Corbyn for his reaction. Does he support this Marxist line of ‘conform or lose benefits’?

At the heart of this debate that will no doubt make for great television in the same way as ‘tough young teachers’ and the Educating Children in various parts of England series did is the question of whether respect for authority is earned or implicit in our society? The great thing about selective schools and indeed, private schools is that a lack of respect for their values gets you slung out.

Even in the 1970s you had to earn the right to teach those teenagers that didn’t want to learn. There is a previous blog post I wrote two years ago in August 2013 celebrating the Newsom Report about secondary modern schools. This was a government report published over 60 years ago that recognised the need for teachers to acquire the skills necessary to teach in a culture where individualism is more important than uniformity.

I would also be interested to see the CBI’s reaction to the programme since they seem to want both intellectual ability and the softer skills of teamwork, personal confidence, leadership and other attributes that aren’t brought out easily by rote learning in large classes.

Perhaps at the heart of this debate is the classic British desire to look for the failures in our society and celebrate defeat rather than identify where our education system is doing well and consider how that success can be replicated.

There is certainly an issue with some aspects of authority in our school system as the DfE figures released last week on exclusions demonstrate with figures for the increase in exclusion of primary school pupils. So, will the next Tory announcement be, a loss of benefits if your child mis-behaves at school? I hope not because I suspect all that will happen is that parents of some of these children won’t send their children to school and they will fall further behind and then become even more troublesome on the days that they do attend.

Personally, I think we need to revisit the curriculum for teenagers and ensure we focus behaviour management strategies in training on dealing with teenagers that find singers more interesting that statistics and tablets more fun than tables.

Finally, I wonder what the Chinese word or symbol is for dumb insolence; perhaps they don’t have one.

New class of challenging schools?

The DfE today released the latest data for absence during the autumn term of the current school-year. As ever, there is a mass of interesting data in the figures that those with responsibility for school outcomes will want to consider in detail.

When the data for the same term last year was published I commented about the relatively large number of UTCs and Studio Schools with significant numbers of pupils that past the threshold where they would be considered as persistent absentees. This year, the threshold is set at 10% absence – for whatever reason, down from a previous level of 15%. It is interesting to see that 19 of the 50 secondary schools with the largest percentages either at or above the 10% level are UTCs (7) or Studio Schools (12). A further three are Free Schools. So, almost half the schools filling the top 50 places are new categories of schools. The next largest group are sponsored academies (16), followed by maintained schools (8) and convertor academies (4).

Some 40 local authority areas are represented by these 50 schools. Liverpool, has the largest number with 5 schools in the list. Other authority areas with more than one include, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Essex and, a surprise to me, Oxfordshire which has two schools in the list – an academy and a maintained school currently seeking to become an academy. Both are in the north of the county.

Another surprising fact is the relative absence of London schools from the list. There are only two London schools in the 50, and one is a UTC. There are also relatively few schools located in the Home Counties, so that makes the Oxfordshire schools stand out even more.

From the data it seems that around a quarter of local authority areas have at least one school where absence is potentially a serious issue for some reason. Some of the UTCs and studio Schools are relatively new and it may be that local schools used the opportunity of their opening to steer some of their challenging Year 9 pupils towards the new provision in the hope that a new environment would provide a new start for the teenagers. Seemingly this works in some cases, but not in all.

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State will want to investigate the leadership at these 50 schools, and those just below them in the rankings, ahead of coasting schools or whether they should be offered more time to improve attendance. Certainly, if Ofsted aren’t monitoring the situation already, then I am sure that the schools can expect a visit in the near future.

The publication earlier this week of Ofsted’s letter to Suffolk means that local authority officers and members need to accept some responsibility for challenging schools as a part of their responsibility for all pupils, regardless of the type of school that they attend. A failure to do so might well lead to the Authority being regarded as inadequate. Perhaps the new Education Bill will recognise this duty and offer new powers to local government; perhaps it won’t, preferring instead to hand responsibility to regional commissioners.

Fine the feckless?

There are reports in the media that Michael Gove wants to deduct fines imposed on parents of those pupils not attending school from child benefits. This policy was suggested earlier in the coalition by a Conservative adviser, but blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Presumably, this revival of the idea could be designed to prevent UKIP announcing it as a policy ahead of the Conservatives.

As a headline it no doubt resonates with groups that feel you shouldn’t get something for nothing, and part of the contract in receiving state benefits is that you play your part; in this case ensuring your offspring go to school regularly. From the opposite perspective it looks like punishing the child by reducing family income, often already low in real terms, because of the actions of the parents. The sins of the fathers or in this case possibly even the mothers, being transferred to the next generation.

None of this is to underestimate the problem of children missing education, and the part parents play in conniving in their absence from school, but to seek to discover how best to deal with the issue.

I have never liked the idea of schools being able to fine parents. Recent governments have taken the idea that fines can be administered by public bodies without recourse to the judicial system to absurd lengths. This means that, unlike in court, those imposing the fines have neither the whole picture nor the means to compel someone to attend to discuss their means. As a result, fines are a very blunt instrument, and this often resorts in them eventually being written off unpaid. If fines are the solution they need to be imposed by a court with oversight of all State imposed penalties: as a form of punishment a community sentence to some form of parenting programme might well be a better alternative, especially if imposed early in a child’s record of unapproved absence. Personally, I think returning Magistrates’ Courts to local areas so that they can act quickly and decisively with the ability to understand the whole picture might be better than allowing head teachers to cut child benefit.

On the other hand, schools do need to consider how, especially in the early years, they can tackle those children that fall behind in their learning through absence. I am sure that the best schools do this as a matter of course, but some research into outcomes at the 20 or some primary schools with the worst attendance records might pay some interesting dividends. It would be an easy win to ask these schools that the DfE has already identified whether they are using their Pupil Premium to help these children?

Where the welfare of the child is in danger a local authority has the extreme option of directly intervening in the parenting of a child. Perhaps the Secretary of State should start by asking his colleagues in the Children’s Services part of his Department what they would recommend before targeting benefit cuts as the headline solution. Liberal Democrats were correct to block this policy last time it was mooted, and although they cannot stop Mr Gove campaigning to put it in the Tory manifesto for 2015, I hope that they will make clear their opposition to it by a definitive statement to that effect from their education minister, David Laws.