Bob Jelley, former head and now supply teacher, argues that success in improving school attendance lies in the hands of the encouragers, persuaders and mentors.

Whenever attendance and absences figures show a blip, it seems that most people have ideas about who is to blame and what should be done about it. The government has tried to get the problem in its sights but maybe the bolt is aerodynamically bent – the target seems to shimmer and prove impossible to hit.

Headteachers and their staffs have to monitor their attendance figures, develop a policy on the issue and follow it up if problems occur. In many schools it is difficult to tackle a general malaise or individual cases.

One general problem concerns families removing their children for holidays. If it’s to lock into a cheaper holiday period there’s a well-worn battle to fight: ‘Yes I’d like your child to have a fortnight in Pontins/Egypt but I’d like her to be educated too’. The battle plan there is fairly well rehearsed with one or two potent arguments in reserve – the family can use – ‘but it’s the only time her dad can have off and we need to have a holiday together to bond’. That can be a difficult point because some of the families we know, perhaps our most needy families, might really need to take a suddenly available opportunity.

In response the head can always say: ‘We all need to work together to show her how important education is, a holiday in school time sends out the message that you can choose when you go to school.’ Perhaps this argument is backed up by the mood of the times – after all we see TV and newspaper interviews with the mother who is fined or threatened with prison. There is an awareness that authority, from government down, means business on this one.

Strict routines

There is the culture of attendance and punctuality too. It seems, in my own backwater, quite different now from recent decades, when unemployment figures were much higher. Then, many children grew up in homes where there was no adult to get up each morning, organise his/her sandwiches and purposefully leave at a set time and get home at a certain time after work each day.

Without that ‘work culture’ in the house it is difficult for children to understand why they have to have a strict  8.50am to 3.30pm routine each day. Many schools serve areas that continue to suffer from local/regional unemployment and there the need to instil the notion of regular school attendance is monumentally hard and absolutely vital at the same time.

Some years ago I heard the late John Smith MP talk about the need to bring ‘hope and dignity back to the estates’. It seems pompous to describe our work on those same estates as missionary, but profundity is well placed here. Schools and their staffs are persuading communities, families and individuals that education increases children’s chances in life, brings opportunities and can make huge differences to their future life choices. The magic can only work if you are there, in school. The settee and day-time TV will not suffice.

Most of us in education believe in and promote its value. But how do we pass on this same reverence to the families who need it – those who need ‘hope and dignity’? If Dominique is not coming to school often enough and on time enough then how can we be effective?

The limits of the stick

It’s quite possible to lurch between stick and carrot approaches; if the parent neglects to get their child into school then insist on a more responsible approach through the courts; if they persist, then enforce a ‘responsible parenting’ course with attendance a prerequisite of family credit payments.

The problem is that we all know someone like Dominique. She gets to school late most days, we have tried a street buddy to walk with her – they were both late. We have tried letting her in early and showering her with perks when she gets there. Early successes, then back to her old ways. Dad is drug-dependent, mum is on the verge of a breakdown; support services are anxious that we don’t upset the apple cart by getting heavy. With what can we threaten this family? The stick approach isn’t always that effective because some of our families have had a fair amount of stick – they are immune to it.

I spoke to some inspiring women recently who act as role models and mentors for severely challenged and apparently inadequate customers, families like Dominique’s. Most of us know individuals who exert an influence in similar conditions. They show, through their own example and the great credibility that this brings that those words ‘hope and dignity’ continue to be appropriate.

It may be that there are some people for whom legal threats are effective but the real work, with families like Dominique’s, will have to be done by the persuaders, the mentors – those who encourage and build rather than chastise. If you have staff who work like this then well done and rejoice.