More absent, but no alarm bells yet

Each year the DfE published data about school attendance and absences for terms 1 & 2 of the school year. The information on 2017/18 appeared yesterday and can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2017-and-spring-term-2018 Sad to say, the data shows a negative change, with most indicators worse than in the previous year. However, levels of attendance are still better than a decade ago.

The DfE note in the text of the Report that the rate of authorised absence has increased from 3.4 per cent to 3.5 per cent in autumn/spring 2017/18. This is due to the percentage of possible sessions missed due to illness increasing since last year from 2.7 to 2.8 per cent, and “other” authorised absence has also increased. Illness remains the most common reason for absence, accounting for 60.0 per cent of all absences. The unauthorised absence rate has also increased across primary and secondary schools since last year, from 1.1 per cent in autumn/spring 2016/17 to 1.2 per cent in autumn/spring 2017/18. This is due to increased levels of unauthorised family holiday and “other” unauthorised absence.

I wonder whether the Beast from the East and other bad weather over the winter may have contributed to the upward tick in the numbers last year. I suspect that many schools will have declared ‘snow days’ in 2017/18 compared to recent years.

However, it was disappointing to see increases in the absence rates for those that are rated as persistent absentees. As the DfE noted:

The percentage of enrolments in state-funded primary and state-funded secondary schools that were classified as persistent absentees in autumn/spring 2017/18 was 11.3 per cent. This is up from the equivalent figure of 10.4 per cent in autumn/spring 2016/17. Secondary schools have the higher rate of persistent absence, 13.6 per cent of enrolments, compared to 9.6 per cent of enrolments in primary schools. The rate of persistent absence has increased in both since last year, when the rate was 12.8 per cent in secondary schools and 8.7 per cent in primary schools.

This is a group where the lack of attendance can seriously affect their educational attainments.

As ever, pupils with disadvantages, as measured by Free School Meals, often have higher absence rates than those pupils not on Free School Meals. There is a wide range of attendance outcomes by ethnic grouping with the highest overall absence rates being for Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/ Roma pupils at 17.6 per cent and 12.3 per cent respectively. Overall absence rates for pupils of a Chinese and Black African ethnicity were substantially lower than the national average of 4.7 per cent at 2.5 per cent and 2.8 per cent respectively. As the DfE note, a similar pattern is seen in persistent absence rates; Traveller of Irish heritage pupils had the highest rate at 60.7 per cent and Chinese pupils had the lowest rate at 3.7 per cent.

Given the complaints about difficulties obtaining appointments with GPs and a lack of dentists in some part of the country, it is interesting to see that medical/dental appointments were at their lowest recorded percentage of missing session over the past five years.

Overall, a slightly disappointing year, but not one to set alarm bells ringing nationally, even if some governing bodies will have to be asking searching questions about the trend sin their schools.

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Update on Leadership trends in the primary sector

Some primary schools are still finding it difficult to recruit a new head teacher. Around half of the 151 local authority areas in England have at least one primary school that has had to pace a second advert so far this year in their quest for a new head. In total more than 170 primary schools across England have not been successful at the first attempt, when looking for a new head teacher.

As some schools are still working through the recruitment process for the first time, following an advertisement placed in April, the number of schools affected is likely to increase beyond the current number as the end of term approaches. Some 25 schools have had to place more than one re-advertisements in their quest for a new head teacher. London schools seem to be faring better than those in parts of the North West when it comes to making an appointment after the first advertisement.

As expected, some faith schools and schools with special circumstances: small school; infant or junior schools and those with other issues feature among the school with more than one advertisement.

The data for this blog comes from TeachVac, the no cost to schools and applicants National Vacancy Listing Service for teaching posts in schools anywhere in England that is already demonstrating what the DfE is spending cash on trying to provide. See for yourself at www.teachvac.co.uk  but you will have to register as TeachVac is a closed system. Such a system prevents commercial organisations cherry picking vacancies and offering candidates to schools for a fee. (TeachVac published a full report on the primary leadership sector in 2017 in January 2018.)

Time was, when appointing a deputy head teachers in the primary sector wasn’t regarded as a problem. Are candidates now being more circumspect when it comes to applying for deputy head teacher vacancies? Certainly, so far in 2018, a third of local authorities have at least one school that has had to re-advertise a deputy head teacher vacancy. The same parts of the county where headship are not easy to fill also applies to deputy head vacancies. This is an especially worrying aspect, since the deputy of today is the head teacher of tomorrow.

Assistant head teacher vacancies are still relatively rare in the primary sector, so it is of concern that 37 local authority areas have recorded at least one vacancy that has been re-advertised so far in 2018. London boroughs that have fared well at the other levels of leadership, seem to be struggling rather more at this level of appointment.

Is this data useful? What should be done with it if it is useful? The DfE have cited data as one of their reasons for creating their own vacancy service, but it will be 2019 at the earliest and possibly not until 2020 that they will have full access to this type of essential management data.

If there is a valid concern about filling leadership positions in the primary sector at all grades then, at least for academies, the government needs to understand what is happening and arrange for strategies to overcome any problem. That’s what strategic leadership of the academy programme is all about. As Labour backed academies in last week’s funding debate, they should work with the government to ensure all academies can appoint a new head teacher when they first advertise. The government should also recognise the role of local authorities in helping with finding new school leaders for the maintained school sector.

Good, but with some worrying features

The February data relating to applications for teaching preparation courses looks, on the surface, like good news for the government. Applications rose between January and February, from just over 81,000 to more than 102,000; an increase of about 20%. Not bad in a month. There was a similar percentage increase in the number of applicants, from just less than 30,000 to 36,600, suggesting that many applicants used all three of their possible choices.

Across the UK, acceptances increased from over 7,000 to more than 17,000, although the bulk of these are conditional offers – presumably awaiting the outcome of the skills tests. More worrying is the 12% of applications withdrawn although some may affect only one application since the number of applicants withdrawing from the scheme is only 390, or barely 1%. More worrying might be the 5,100 applicants where no offer was made. This is 14% of applicants. A further 25% of applicants are waiting an offer from a provider, and there are more than 5,000 interviews pending.

Applications are broadly in line with the share of places on the different routes, with HE receiving 58%, down from a 60% share in January, and School Direct 37% up from 36%. SCITT have attracted 5% of applications. (HE has 56% of places, SCITTs 7%, and School Direct 37%). So, what matters is that acceptances in future are in line with applications on all three routes. As there is considerable over-allocation of places in many secondary subjects, there is still the possibility of over-recruitment in some popular subjects, or subjects where the bursary proves especially popular. However, it is too early to tell exactly what is going on in relation to acceptances by subject, not least because the figures are not presented in a very helpful manner.

As might be expected at this time of year, applications grew at a faster rate from the older age groups of career switchers, with the 29+ groups showing the largest percentage increases in applicants, and the under-21s the smallest percentage increase; presumably as they focused on the final examinations rather than worried about course applications.

By next month there should be a much clearer picture about acceptances, since many of the 25,000 or so applicants to courses in England noted in January should have been processed by then. At that point, and certainly by the May 1st data, it should be possible to see what is happening across the different subjects sufficiently clearly to make some predictions. Hopefully, it will be good news for the government, and eventually for schools looking to employ these would-be teachers in September 2015.