Why does truancy remain a problem for some schools, and how far can hi-tech solutions help? Special Children looks at how e-registration might help

It’s a familiar picture in any high street on a weekday: a group of kids who should clearly be at school hanging out in the shopping malls or pursuing other interests, such as skateboarding. Despite the efforts of ministers, schools and the police, truancy remains a major issue. It not only affects academic achievement but it feeds into some of the biggest concerns of central government: gangs, anti-social behaviour, drugs and juvenile crime.

In 2006, Ofsted surveyed attendance in 31 secondary schools to try to identify how attendance problems could be prevented or reduced. It found that attendance rates had improved nationally since 2002-03, but that the level of unauthorised absence had not shown the same improvement. It also found a strong relationship between social deprivation and lower rates of attendance and between school effectiveness and attendance. A survey of Ofsted inspections revealed that attendance was ‘inadequate’ in almost half of the 130 lowest scoring schools, while it never dipped below ‘satisfactory’ in the 103 judged to be ‘outstanding’.

The main reasons that students gave for unauthorised absence were consistent: boring lessons, problems with particular teachers and difficulties catching up with work. Some also cited bullying, which they said their school had not resolved adequately.

Ofsted’s proposed strategies for improving attendance included better teaching, more curriculum flexibility, mentoring, multi-agency working and better planning of transition from primary to secondary school. It also highlighted a need for better communication with parents, in particular recommending that schools should contact parents promptly if their child was absent. ‘First day calling’ was found to have got results  in the schools surveyed, although it was less successful for students with the most challenging attendance problems, particularly where parents condoned the student’s absence. The potential role of technology was also highlighted in gathering and analysing attendance data. Ofsted said:

‘In one school, an online system for recording individual students’ attendance at registration and in each lesson enabled attendance patterns to be linked to students’ progress. The school gave regular feedback to staff, students and parents. The headteacher said this approach “leaves no hiding place for the less committed or poorer attendees”. The feedback also provided students with evidence that there was a strong link between attendance and examination results.’

Truancy terminology

Authorised absence is absence with permission from a teacher or other authorised representative of the school. This includes instances of absences for which a satisfactory explanation has been provided (for example, illness).

Unauthorised absence is absence without permission from a teacher or other authorised representative of the school. This includes all unexplained or unjustified absences. Arriving late for school can sometimes be recorded as unauthorised absence.

A persistent absentee is defined as a pupil absent for more than 20% of all possible half-days. For autumn term 2006 and spring term 2007 a persistent absentee was taken as being absent for 52 or more possible half-days. For the autumn term 2007 and spring term 2008, this is taken as being absent for 48 or more possible half-days. This reduction was due to the shorter spring term in 2008. Because Easter fell early in 2008, the spring term was shorter by approximately 20 possible half-days in the majority (approximately 82 per cent) of schools.

Persistent absentees
In March 2007, data published by the Department for Education and Skills threw new light on truancy. For the first time, national data was derived from termly attendance records for individual pupils rather than annual figures collected at school level. This confirmed the link between social deprivation and unauthorised absence suggested in the Ofsted report: pupils eligible for free school meals were found to have almost three times as many unauthorised absences as their peers. The new data also revealed that more than half of all unauthorised absence among more than three million secondary pupils was accounted for by just 2.4% of pupils. Government attention switched to ‘persistent absentees’ (see panel for definition).

As schools minister Jim Knight explained at the time:

‘The figures that emerge from this new and much more detailed approach to capturing attendance data justify our targeted approach to tackling absence. They show that we are dealing with a small minority of persistent absentees who account for most absence. It makes sense to clamp down on these as an absolute priority.’

Targeting parents
Ministers also focused their attention on parents as part of the Government’s ‘rights and responsibilities’ agenda. Parents were to be given every possible support in ensuring that their children attended school but where they were thought to be condoning absenteeism they would face tougher action. Parents were already on the Government’s radar after the publication of the Steer report (Learning behaviour: The Report of the Practitioners’ Group on School Behaviour and Discipline) in October 2005. Among the observations it made was that:

‘Opportunities to meet with parents and carers at secondary school are more limited, as pupils by and large make their own way to school. This means that secondary schools need to be more active in linking with parents and carers to help pupils who have difficulty with their attitudes and behaviour.’

A series of recommendation were made in the report, including that all schools should take advantage of technology such as email and mobile phones to improve communications with parents and carers, although it was stressed that these forms of communication should not replace personal contact.

In September 2007, it was revealed that between 1 January and 13 April in the same year, 4,616 penalty fines were issued, 11,023 cases were put into fast-track case management (an early intervention framework for schools and local authorities), and 4,508 parenting contracts were issued for persistent absenteeism. Parents were also criticised for permitting truancy or absence on flimsy grounds and for taking their children out of school during term time to take advantage of cheaper holidays.

In December 2007, the focus on parents featured prominently in the Children’s Plan published by Ed Balls, which described partnership with parents as its ‘unifying theme’ and promised a new relationship between parents and schools. It also asked Sir Alan Steer to review progress on behaviour – including absenteeism – since his 2005 report.

Sir Alan has published two reports in response to this request. In March 2008, he commended new measures taken by the Government to establish a clear understanding by all parties of their rights and responsibilities but suggested that, ‘Clarifying parental responsibilities should be seen as being supportive rather than being punitive and is closely linked with the provision of support to families as specified in the Children’s Plan.’ He also supported the extension of Safer School Partnerships as a means of improving behaviour and attendance.

His second report, in July 2008, specifically addressed the need for schools and parents to make more use of information technology to improve communication and engagement. He also noted: ‘There is an expectation that by 2010 all secondary schools and by 2012 all primary schools will be offering regular reports to parents by online reporting and many schools are already in the process of introducing this facility.’ He added:

‘It is my view that online access can only be a force for the good in engaging parents with schools and I fully support the imaginative initiative. Regular reporting of pupil progress will enable parents to intervene at an early stage when that is necessary and will provide them with the information to have meaningful discussions with school staff. Successfully implemented online communication with home will produce a better school environment, make a positive impact on teachers’ workload and greatly benefit our young learners. Online access will also allow a parent to monitor the school attendance and punctuality of their child. This will be helpful in preventing truancy and the potential for greater engagement of parents for this purpose needs to be recognised by schools.’

Despite these initiatives, progress in tackling truancy has been slow. In the latest provisional figures published by the DCSF, the percentage of unauthorised absence in the autumn term of 2007 and the spring term of 2008 for primary and state-funded secondary schools was 0.97 per cent, the same as for autumn 2006 and spring 2007. The rate of overall absence (authorised and unauthorised) for persistent absentees was 32.9 per cent, which was more than five times higher than the rate for all pupils. Across primary and state funded secondary schools, persistent absentees accounted for almost 52 per cent of unauthorised absence.

Unauthorised absence and technology
As attempts to significantly reduce unauthorised absence have intensified, ministers and schools have turned to technology as one means of tackling the problem. In 2001, the DCSF made £11.25m available to provide electronic registration systems in 538 secondary schools facing difficulties with unauthorised absence. An independent evaluation of the project published in 2006 (Evaluation of Capital Modernisation Funding for Electronic Registration in Selected Secondary Schools by Geoff Lindsay, Daniel Muijs, Dimitra Hartas and Sue Band) concluded that:

‘Electronic registration can play an important role in helping schools with high rates of absence to improve attendance but as one of a broad range of initiatives including the creation of a positive school climate and developing a relevant curriculum.’

However, the same study found that a significant minority of schools experienced substantial initial difficulties in setting up their systems and that overall there was no clear saving of time for teachers or administrative staff. This was due to both positive and negative factors: schools had more data, which they found useful, but analysing and acting upon the data required time and effort. Other problems were caused by faults in the system and incompatibility between e-registration and other school data management systems. Schools were also ambivalent about the relative impact of e-registration on unauthorised absence: nine out of 10 schools considered that e-registration provided useful information on authorised and unauthorised absence but when asked to rank its impact on reducing absence, the evaluation team found that they placed it low in the list of possible factors.

‘These schools rated e-registration only seventh of a list of nine possible absence reduction factors, in both 2004 and 2005. Furthermore, in 2005 only 2.4% ranked it first. The most highly rated overall were: first, creating a positive school climate and second, developing a relevant curriculum; these were rated first choice by 46.0% and 25.1% of schools respectively. Discussions with school staff reinforced these relative rankings. In short, e-registration was seen as another important tool to help schools tackle absence but of more importance was getting schooling right for the pupils.’

The two factors that schools rated less effective than e-registration were punishing parents of consistent non-attendees and punishing non-attendees themselves.

Systems suppliers blamed some of the problems experienced by schools on their failure to make an adequately informed choice of system to suit the profile of their school. The evaluation team found support for this view, in that several schools in their sample ‘found a need to change their system, having discovered too late a mismatch between system and school profile’. This led the report to recommend that a framework of guidance should be provided for schools about to purchase an e-registration system (this is now available on the Becta website). It also recommended a programme of training for the teaching and administrative staff needed to operate, analyse, interpret and act upon the data produced. Schools were also urged to consider carefully the implications of purchasing an e-registration system for staff resourcing, and to carry out a cost/benefit analysis covering procurement, maintenance and upgrades.

Unfortunately, one of the aspects of the research that would have been of most interest to schools considering buying an e-registration system — a comparative study of the different systems available at the time — could not be carried out for a number of reasons, one being that nearly three-quarters of the schools involved chose one of two systems from among the 10 available. Another reason was that new systems would become available over the three years of the study.

In October 2008, Ofsted published a report based on a survey of 29 secondary schools that had shown a decrease in unauthorised absences between 2004 and 2006 (Good practice in re-engaging disaffected and reluctant students in secondary schools). The aim of the survey was to identify which of the actions the schools had taken had been most successful in helping disaffected students, including those who were persistent absentees. The features identified were:

  • The staff shared a commitment to helping the students succeed, which they expressed clearly to students and their families. The school ethos valued and respected the needs of individuals. The students felt part of the school.
  • Robust monitoring of academic, personal and social progress, and close collaboration with primary schools and other services for children and young people ensured that students who were likely to become disaffected were identified early. They received appropriate support before and after they entered secondary school.
  • Teaching assistants provided vital support for individuals, helping them to maintain their interest and cope with any crises. This allowed teachers to focus on teaching the whole class.
  • Pastoral support was managed by assigned support staff. They acted as the first point of contact for all parents and carers and they directed them to the most appropriate member of staff if they could not deal with the issue themselves.
  • Communication with students and their families was very effective. It ensured that they were fully involved in the process and had confidence in the decisions that were made. Students knew they were listened to and felt they could contribute to decisions about their future. Home-school liaison staff played a critical role.
  • Specific support, such as temporary withdrawal from classes and training in life skills to help students change their attitudes and improve their learning, was very effective.
  • At key stage 4, a high-quality, flexible curriculum, involving a range of accredited training providers outside the school, was effective in engaging students more in their learning.

Technology featured strongly under the second and fifth points. These schools were found to gather data on academic performance and attendance ‘rigorously and regularly’ and to use it as a basis for ‘effective and speedy response’. Although there is no specific mention of e-registration systems in the report, it is safe to assume that these play a role in some of these schools. The views of students, parents and carers were also actively sought. Internal and external email systems were used to keep staff and parents up to date with students’ performance and staff responded promptly to telephone calls from parents.

So, while e-registration is by no means a panacea for tackling unauthorised absence, it has become an important tool in tackling the problem. Even where schools do not ascribe a high importance to the part played by technology in reducing unauthorised absence, there is a general recognition that the improvement in data collection has enabled schools to identify patterns of attendance that might otherwise have been missed and to do so before the behaviour became entrenched.

The key lesson from schools seems to be that technology alone will not solve attendance problems. School ethos and curriculum flexibility are paramount, as are the resources to ensure that staff have the time and are trained to analyse attendance data.

For Becta’s guide to e-registration systems, go to www.becta.org.uk and search for ‘Attendance messaging’

Here are some of the key players in e-registration and truancy technology