Earlier this year Ofsted paid us a visit. Out of a possible 30-plus graded areas, we were delighted that we were only given three ‘satisfactory’ scores. One of those was for attendance… and that’s not our fault, is it?

Our long-term aim is to be judged to be ‘outstanding’ because at that point we will know that we are providing the highest possible educational standards to the children. Our satisfactory grade for attendance was not only a result of our data over the last three years being broadly in line with the national average, but also our only ‘satisfactory’ attempts to raise attendance figures which did not extend much beyond the odd certificate.

Ofsted’s desire to see attendance improve is because of unquestionable links to pupil attainment and ours is… satisfactory. Essentially, to coin a modern phrase, it is a ‘no-brainer’ – children who attend school regularly achieve more. In order for us to improve further, we needed to take action, even if we knew that it would not necessarily make us very popular.

What we did
We began by looking at the data. It became very clear that a significant number of parents were taking their children out of school during term-time for foreign holidays. Two pieces of data stood out:

  • 70% of our worst-attending children were on the SEN register.
  • 60% of our worst-attending children spoke English as an additional language.

Our rationale for not wanting children to be taken out of school for holidays was that:

  • holidays in term-time break the continuity of learning
  • teachers may not have the time to ‘reteach’ what has been missed during a holiday
  • children find it hard to break back into friendship groups causing considerable stress and unhappiness – further impacting on learning
  • children taking holidays in September miss out on learning classroom routines, causing distress and anxiety upon return
  • pupils suffer a loss of confidence as a result of feeling ‘left behind’ and worry about ‘catching up’
  • children are disappointed when they work towards activities but then miss out as a result of being away
  • gaps in learning often take a long time to be resolved.

In recent years, it has been thought by some that parents are entitled to take their child out of school for two weeks per year as long as they fill in the ‘holiday form’. However, in reality, this has never been the case. In exceptional circumstances, parents can ask permission to take a child out of school by completing a leave of absence form.

Parents are often unaware of the impact of the cumulative effect of the odd day off through illness and long weekends until the end of the academic year, when school reports are issued. In a change of direction, a letter was sent to all parents at the start of the new school year, informing them of our desire to improve attendance. We told them that at the end of each half-term we would write to them if their child’s attendance had fallen below 90%. We also pointed out that 90% represented half a day off per week on average.

At this time the leave of absence form was also updated to remind parents that time off school should only be taken in exceptional circumstances; sadly, a cheap holiday in Torremolinos is not one of them. The government brought in fixed penalty notices for schools to issue to parents when they took holidays in term-time. These have, however, never caught on as they could cause damage in the critical relationship between home and school.

In order to further reinforce our point, a leaflet was produced highlighting our concerns. We acknowledged holidays are cheaper during term-time than during the 13 weeks of ‘official’ holidays, but we very much hoped that parents would take educational factors into account when planning absence from school.

When a ‘leave of absence’ form is received by the school, we have decided to have a pragmatic approach to our decision-making. Firstly, we will look at that child’s attendance record over a period of three years to determine the rate of previous absence. If we consider that a child’s attendance has previously been excellent, ‘authorised’ absence will be granted. If this is not the case, attendance will be recorded as ‘unauthorised’. We also formalised a previously unwritten rule that authorised leave of absence will never be granted in the run-up to national testing in Years 2 and 6. You do, of course, need to consider the impact of unauthorised attendance figures and the changes in blood pressure this may cause at your LA and Ofsted – but if you can prove an improving picture of attendance, then it is a strategy worth pursuing.

The leaflet also highlighted another change of direction: not to provide children and parents with ‘work’ to complete to compensate for time away. As we all know, this is usually very time-consuming and rarely does anything of substance get returned. Instead, we provided parents with ideas of activities they could do with their children.

The issue of children taking extended leave, perhaps to return to a family’s country of origin, is a more contentious issue. While foreign travel is both stimulating and academically rewarding, can parents justify doing this on annual or even bi-annual basis? Is it not possible for the summer holidays to be used for extended breaks?

And finally
Since we introduced these measures we have seen an improvement in attendance figures and would now be judged ‘good’ by Ofsted. We still have a long way to go and will need to continually monitor attendance figures.

David Morley is deputy head of a large primary school in Milton Keynes