Little disrupts the classroom more than the absenteeism of pupils; children fall behind their peers, miss key learning that has to be repeated, find their friendship groups move on without them. All of these factors can lead to a child feeling isolated, which in turn can cause them become disruptive and damage their mental health. It is also an important statistic for schools; poor attendance can result in a poor Ofsted grading, and we all know that nothing is more disruptive to a classroom, or more stressful for teachers, than jumping through Ofsted’s hoops to order.
Pupils can be absent for any number of reasons, many of which can be mitigated against with the right approaches. Obviously, the most common cause of absenteeism amongst pupils is ill health. And, unfortunately, this is the one you can do the least about. With the government raising the attendance target to 97% over the last decade, pupils miss this by having just 6 days off school across the year. So, what can you do? Well, obviously, you can try to keep infections out of your classroom – standard procedures like sending children home when they are ill, making sure that they don’t come back to school until they are well. But that’s going to make your attendance figures worse, isn’t it?
The not-really-sick days
In truth, we allow children to have too much time off for being ill. More than half of the sick days recorded are unnecessary. Children get sent home because they say they have a stomach-ache; we tell them to drink water or see how it feels after break and then send them home if it persists. Unless it’s Friday, about 90% of will be off the next day as well, often just to “save face” for the child and/or parent. The majority of these children never actually vomit, have a temperature or any real illness. It’s these unnecessary days that do the real damage.
We can challenge the conventions that schools have in place regarding illness. Why do children have to have 48 hours off after they vomit? Without any other sign of infection, it’s far more likely they were sick through anxiety or food poisoning than illness. We should encourage parents to use their own judgement about when a child is too ill for school, not an arbitrary rule that damages the child’s education, and make sure parents and pupils understand that if you feel well enough to be in school before the afternoon session begins, then it’s worth attending it.
It’s not a treat
It’s also vitally important to make pupils want to be in school so that any time off they must have is felt as a loss by the child, not perceived as a treat. We fight a battle against perception; many parents in Britain take free education for granted to such an extent that it doesn’t seem important - not as important as children being happy. The travesty of this is that school is too often not seen as making children happy. We can change this in simple ways.
The most obvious, and easiest, way is to get to know the children we teach better; find out what their interests are and relate learning to their interests. They don’t want you to be an expert but being able to comment on their favourite game or band or sport makes the child feel valued as an individual; for many of our most absent pupils this is something they are lack at home and leads to them not valuing themselves. Inevitably, they then don’t value their education. Why bother educating someone worthless, eh?
Tackle the root of bullying
We can also help children actively want to be in school by ensuring we have a harmonious atmosphere in the classroom. We all know that bullying is a sad fact of society, particularly in schools. Bullying can come in many different forms, especially in the overly-connected world we live in today, but it invariably starts in the same way; a child or children with low self-esteem validate themselves by being unkind to other children. Every time they get in trouble for it, it reinforces their own issues. Eventually they find a child that doesn’t tell, or a teacher with “bigger things” to worry about. By developing trust and rapport with every child, especially those that exhibit disruptive behaviours, you’re far more likely to be able to mediate the issue of bullying in the classroom.
Children are also indiscriminate in their friendship choices, especially early on. Create trust groups that span across regular friendship circles; these could be used for specific lessons, for small challenges you set, for homework tasks – anything that gets the children to collaborate. If you can introduce some competition, all the better - it gives them an obvious opportunity to succeed together. You can also use this competition to galvanise your whole class; compete with other classes and allow every child to be a valued part of the team. I have often used the African “Ubuntu” philosophy as espoused by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela at the formation of post-apartheid South Africa. Essentially, this says that “I am because we are” or “I succeed because we do”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy
Make your classroom a happy, safe and trusting place that children want to be in; make your class a team that succeeds together; win the trust of the parents by demonstrating that you know their children and care about their education and interests and you will see your attendance, and inevitably the attainment and harmony of your classroom, rise.
Are you looking for your next role? See our available vacancies here.
About the author
James Taylor is the assistant headteacher of a primary school in Berkshire, who has spent the last 13 years ensuring that the welfare of the children is at the forefront of thinking in relation to behaviour and attendance. When he’s not busy helping senior leadership teams identify issues faced by children and increasing attendance, he is available for long discussions about baseball and the Oscars.