Can improving pupils’ behaviour reduce absence? Following the government’s lowering of the threshold for persistent absence, Dave Stott examines the causes of absence and outlines some practical actions for reducing it

With recently released government figures showing a worrying increase in the number of school days missed through absence, and strong links between poor attendance and levels of achievement, can improving pupil behaviour and the teaching and learning environment help reduce levels of absence?

The DfE recently released figures to show that in excess of 450,000 children (7.2%) were absent from school for 15% or more of the autumn 2010 and spring 2011 terms – the equivalent of missing a month’s worth of lessons in one year. It has lowered the threshold for absence judged to be persistent from 20% to 15% of school time.

There are clearly a range of reasons for these absences:

  • long term sickness or chronic medical problems
  • family holidays or overseas visits
  • truancy
  • persistent lateness
  • behaviour issues
  • bullying.

While it may be quite difficult for individual teachers to make a significant impact on some of the above factors, there are certainly areas which can be radically revised and improved, particularly when linked to pupil behaviour and the teaching and learning environment.

Some of these pupils are simply ‘voting with their feet’. Some pupils report that:

  •  they find school boring or not relevant
  •  that their learning is disrupted by the unacceptable behaviour of other students
  •  their schooling is interrupted by peer pressure to absent themselves from school or certain lessons
  •  school is non-essential due to lack of parental support to attend
  •  school is not enjoyable because of the environment, the teachers, the curriculum, etc

So on a practical note, how can these issues be addressed across the whole school, in the classroom and for individual pupils?

Practical Tips

Looking back at some of the benefits and impacts of introducing SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) into the whole-school and teaching ethos reveals the following:

  •  ‘Teaching’ social and emotional behavioural skills improves behaviour, reduces exclusions and raises attendance. Pupils feel safe and    empowered when working in an emotionally literate environment.
  • SEAL helps to increase resilience to stress, enabling pupils to deal with pressure of work, curriculum issues, and perhaps more importantly, peer pressure. They are more able to resist the taunts and threats of bullies and the pressure to be ‘part of the crowd’.
  • Improved emotional literacy skills help to optimise the learning that students engage in. They can see the relevance of the curriculum and it can strengthen their individual resolve and personal motivation. They begin to understand the differences between instant gratification and the need to plan, set individual targets and establish long-term goals.
  • An emotionally literate approach to styles of teaching (appropriate environment, differentiated and relevant curriculum, calm and emotionally balanced approach by all adults) will reinforce and, in some cases, transform current teaching and learning strategies in some schools and classrooms. (Understand learning styles, empowering pupils by giving them a range of learning opportunities.)

Many practical actions to improve the teaching and learning environment can be quite simple and straightforward to implement. There do not need to be wholesale changes to the existing school policies, just simply more effective implementation, ensuring:

  •  clarity and consistency across the whole teaching and support staff about expectations and boundaries of pupil behaviour
  • that all staff and parents are clear on school and classroom rules. These rules should be displayed and regularly referred to
  • consistent use of rewards and sanctions, particularly in relation to pupil behaviour, with all staff issuing rewards and effective sanctions appropriately, not producing an imbalance between individuals – pupils quickly work out which staff are ‘easier’ to deal with if there are inconsistencies in approach
  •  support and guidance for staff to enable them follow the school behaviour policy
  • clear leadership and ‘visibility’ on a daily basis from senior staff
  • orderly movement around the school. A key ingredient for success in this area is for consistent support by all staff. Those on duty must be seen to be on duty

The above measures are simple and effective techniques for improving behaviour and therefore attendance in schools. Most of the above points are already in place in schools. They just need to be consistently applied across all areas, particularly in engaging with parents to help them understand school expectations and gain their support.

If Ofsted is to continue to take into account the numbers of pupils over the ‘persistently absent’ threshold when looking at a school’s performance, a review of existing practice and pupil behaviour can make some significant improvements to a school’s performance and pupil achievement.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer