included, engaged and involved- part 1: attendance in scottish schools

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4. Managing unauthorised absence

4.1 Unauthorised absence

Schools must record absence as unauthorised when there is no satisfactory reason for absence provided. Such absence is likely to include:

  • Most family holidays, unless there are exceptional circumstances (see 3.6)
  • Parent-condoned absence where the school does not agree there is a satisfactory reason for absence (see practice point below)
  • Truancy, with or without the knowledge of the parent
  • All other unexplained absence is recorded as unauthorised absence unless a satisfactory explanation is subsequently provided
  • Longer-term exceptional domestic carer circumstances where support has been provided
  • During disputes, such as relating to the return of a pupil after an exclusion

Practice point

Where the school decides that the reason provided for the absence by the parent is unsatisfactory the school should record the absence as unauthorised. The parent should be informed that the absence will be recorded as unauthorised and the reasons for doing so shared with the parents and carers. The school should keep a detailed record of the absence(s), the parent's explanation and the reasons the school does not accept the explanation provided. The school should then initiate appropriate follow-up measures to ensure the protection and well being of the pupil. Follow-up measures should be in line with local policy and guidelines. Examples of appropriate follow-up may be:

  • A referral to the school's home-link worker for a home visit
  • A home visit by one of the school's pastoral team
  • A referral to the school's multi-agency assessment group for advice/support
  • A referral to the Reporter to the Children's Panel
  • A referral to the attendance council

4.2 Parents' priorities

Parents generally act in the best interests of their children. At times, parents condone absence because they genuinely believe that their child will benefit from an alternative activity ( e.g. trip, work experience opportunity outwith those arranged through the school) and may first seek the school's authorisation of the absence. In these circumstances clear school and authority policies and regular communication of expectations will help school staff respond appropriately.

Sometimes, parents condone absence because they believe the school is failing to act in the best interests of the child, for example, by failing to tackle bullying or to address conflict between the child and a particular teacher. How schools respond to this situation is important not only to the child and parent involved, but to other parents in the community. In these circumstances, early contact with the parent though home-school link or family support workers, or a key member of staff responsible for pastoral care, to build relationships and restore trust may be important. Flexible arrangements to ensure the child's attendance at school are the first priority, with plans in place to resolve difficulties agreed with the parents and pupil, to help ensure that absence from school does not become an habitual response to difficulties.

Sometimes, parents do not regard education as a high priority and are ambivalent about good school attendance for their children. Some parents and older generations in the same family have had poor experiences themselves of education. Some parents fear that involvement with the school, and the requirement to help with homework, will expose their own poor basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy. In some areas, these barriers have been overcome and attitudes towards children's learning have become much more positive. The key to building relationships is regular, informal contact, and encouragement to parents to see the school as a source of support and practical help, for example through partnership working with community learning and development services, to establish food co-ops, welfare benefits advice, parent health workshops within the school and co-location of services for example health services located on the same site as school services.

4.3 Casual truancy

It is estimated that one in five pupils is involved in truancy in a year (2005-06 data on Attendance and Absence in Scottish Schools) though less than 2% of pupils are responsible for half of casual truancy. Tackling truancy requires clear messages that truancy is unacceptable. It also requires vigilance and a quick response from staff to contact parents notifying them that their child is absent from school. At secondary school many casual truants present themselves for registration and then absent themselves for specific lessons. This can be minimised by effective playground supervision with an eye on entrances/exits to the school grounds; effective monitoring of lesson-by-lesson attendance and use of this information to manage absence hotspots; and identification of pupils prone to truancy for specific action if they do not arrive in lessons ( i.e. immediate notification to the school office for action by the member of staff responsible for managing absence and notifying parents).

As break times are a key opportunity to leave school, many schools have found it beneficial to work in partnership with pupils to improve the areas within the school and grounds where pupils can gather, such as providing healthy snacks and drinks for purchase and allowing music, games or activities to encourage young people to stay within the school. 1

Casual truancy may be a lone activity but is often a spontaneous social activity where peer influence helps overcome inhibitions and weighing up of consequences. Schools must ensure that there are consequences, such as parent contact, withdrawal of privileges or an impact on the pupils' rewards system. However, for pupils particularly vulnerable to peer influence, who may truant to gain standing with peers, buddying and mentoring during break times and even during class changeover can provide the positive peer influence that helps pupils stay within school.

Smoking is a further factor in exposure to the temptation of casual truancy for pupils who hang around on the fringes of school grounds at break times, or leave school to buy cigarettes. Positive action to prevent smoking and to support smoking cessation within schools in partnership with local health services, can improve health and help reduce casual truancy.

More rarely, some truancy is organised and planned in advance, and involves groups of pupils, for example in gang-related or territorial activity, or in preparation for parties or weekends. In schools where staff have positive relationships with pupils and make opportunities to listen, they will be in touch with what pupils are up to and through sharing appropriate information, can develop a school response. Local police and youth work staff should also be encouraged to share information where appropriate and collaborate on a joint response, so that the response is consistent in the community and continues outwith school hours. Further information is available from Open Scotland Data Sharing: Legal Guidance for the Scottish Public Sector http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/26350/0025711.pdf. As well as preventing truancy this approach can help prevent pupils coming to more serious harm.

4.4 Chronic truancy - unhappy at school?

Young people truant from school for a number of reasons. For some, it is an expression of unhappiness with life in school, which may have a number of causes:

  • Bullying
  • Conflict with, or fear of, a teacher or teachers
  • Conflict with, or fear of, another child
  • Poor social skills
  • Poor basic skills (reading, writing, numeracy)
  • Struggling with learning or specific lessons
  • Unhappy with course choices after S3
  • Feeling stigmatised by the school's attempts to provide personal support, learning support or behaviour support
  • Feeling stigmatised by insensitive sharing of information about personal details
  • Feeling stigmatised by insensitive handling of appointments or involvement with other services ( e.g. social work) during school time

In addition to communicating that truancy is unacceptable, it is essential to identify any underlying causes of truancy and to take action to resolve these. Schools require a strong approach to pastoral care, and strategic use of additional support staff. Schools which convey a positive, caring ethos help pupils to feel that they can approach staff within the school to express their views and discuss their concerns, or that when approached by a member of staff offering help, they will respond with trust.

A number of whole-school approaches are being implemented in schools which proactively develop and improve relationships and underpin an ethos of trust and communication. Schools using restorative approaches have found that conflict can be constructively handled and relationships can be restored to the benefit of pupils and staff. Solution oriented approaches can be used involving staff, pupils and parents in building on strengths and working together to identify solutions (see www.betterbehaviourscotland.gov.uk). Whatever approach schools decide to use, listening to pupils, and persistence in overcoming barriers to learning, are fundamental to improving attendance.

4.5 Chronic truancy - unhappy for other reasons?

For some young people, their unhappiness may be linked to other issues, such as:

  • Difficult family circumstances, including domestic abuse
  • Difficulty coping with traumatic events
  • Worries about parents, siblings or people close to them
  • Living in foster or residential care or other major changes
  • Experience of abuse or neglect

The young person's mental health and emotional distress may result in depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, or he or she may self-harm, in addition to truanting.

Staff must use their knowledge of the child and the family to judge the most appropriate response. Many of these issues, and others which may affect attendance and a child's wellbeing, are discussed in the A-Z section of The Safe and Well handbook.

It should be a priority to address any concerns, in the context of considering that, for many children, the consistency of adult and peer relationships, planned support and opportunities to achieve provided by schools are a key part of enabling the child to work towards positive outcomes. A range of services collaborate with schools to provide specialist help or services to children and families, and all should consider working towards full attendance in school or another learning provision, a shared goal.

4.6 Caught up with other influences

Peer group influence can be an important factor in attitudes to school. They can be constructive or negative, but either way will be extremely important to every pupil, as these friendships often represent the child's belonging to the school and community.

As they grow older, some young people may have friends (or partners) no longer attending school. Playground supervision and monitoring of entrances/exits can help deter older young people from hanging around in the vicinity of the school (see also Substance misuse, 4.7). School staff should consider whether, in all cases and particularly in the case of a school pupil who is involved in a relationship with an older partner,, there is coercion or any risk to the pupil for which child protection concerns may arise see The Safe and Well handbook (A-Z section, Teenage Pregnancy and Under-age Sexual Activity).

On some occasions community issues can spill over into the school community. Conflict between families, or gangs and territorial issues can cause young people to avoid school in order to avoid each other. It is helpful to involve partner agencies such as the police, community learning and development services and youth work, to consider a collaborative approach to sharing information and working to resolve this both within school and in the community, and to ensure that where there is conflict in the community, all young people feel safe at school and know that signs of intimidation will not be tolerated.

As young people grow older it becomes more difficult to challenge their formation of friendships. However, during transition between schools, the new environment and new peer groups present an opportunity to enable more vulnerable pupils to become attached to positive peer groups and to be exposed to positive role models through buddying and mentoring. For some pupils, the opportunity to be a buddy or mentor to others has a similarly positive effect on their own behaviour as well as the pupils they mentor.

Some schools have successfully re-engaged young people at risk of becoming socially isolated or refusing school by using the Circle of Friends approach. The approach enables small groups of pupils to provide support to other pupils by identifying and implementing positive strategies. A case study which provides further information on this approach is available at http://www.betterbehaviourscotland.gov.uk/knowledge/pupil_to_pupil/practiceexamples/primaryschool/_816/default.aspx.

Some schools use additional support staff to provide break time and after school activities that provide a focal point for young people having difficulty forging positive peer relationships.

4.7 Substance misuse

The use of drugs and alcohol can affect school attendance in a number of ways:

  • Being intoxicated or leaving school to get intoxicated
  • Being hungover
  • Being unable to function without using substances (addiction)
  • Trying to avoid dealers or other users who may be in, or hang around school
  • Trying to avoid people owed money for previous deals, who may be in, or hang around school
  • Being part of a supply chain and trying to avoid intimidation by other suppliers

This issue is discussed in more detail in the Safe and Well handbook (A-Z section Drug and Alcohol Misuse). All staff should be aware of signs for concern, of which non-attendance may be the initial trigger of investigation. Substance misuse which is disrupting attendance may be a lifestyle choice which has got out of hand, or it may be a reaction to unhappiness caused by other issues.

While exclusion may be a consideration in response to a young person found to be in possession of substances or involved in supply, it is unlikely that the situation is limited to one individual. Staff should consider a whole-school approach. Collaboration with other agencies such as the police, drugs services and youth services will ensure effective prevention activity, sharing of information, and shared efforts to respond to young people in difficulty.

4.8 Long-term exceptional domestic circumstances

There may be circumstances where a family may find their domestic circumstances change unexpectedly, as a result of a crisis. For example:

  • as a result of an accident or illness, or
  • during the serious or critical illness of a close relative which causes serious disruption to the family home

Once the crisis has passed, or once support has been put in place for the family, it is expected that the pupil will attend school as usual. If this does not happen the absence should be recorded as unauthorised, and steps taken to facilitate his or her expedient return to school.

4.9 Motivation

National data show that attendance at school declines during secondary years. Many believe that the structure of the curriculum, its mainly academic focus and the way that subject choices are presented in S2/3, contributes to the gradual disengagement of many young people. This is also supported by the HMIE report Missing Out which considered the reasons for pupil disengagement and how to meet these pupils' particular needs. A Curriculum for Excellence promotes flexibility in the curriculum and, as set out in Skills for Scotland - A Lifelong Skills Strategy, should provide vocational learning and the employability skills needed for the world of work. Skills for Work courses have been developed to provide progression pathways to employment, training or further learning by learning through practical experience and the development of employability skills and specific vocational skills. In addition, the school and college partnership strategy Lifelong Partners 2005, paved the way for enhanced opportunities for pupils to access college learning to broaden their curriculum choices and enrich their educational experience. The strategy recognised that vocational education can provide a suitable context, something which may capture pupils' imagination and interest and better engage some pupils to learn, encouraging full attendance as well as enabling more young people to achieve. The policy framework established that pupils in all abilities in S3 and above should be considered for college learning opportunities.

Pupil motivation is a key issue in attendance at school and engagement with learning. To enable them to get on in life, pupils need to be able to work autonomously using a range of skills to seek information and help, solve problems and persevere with challenges. However, all pupils approach learning differently and a key skill of teachers is to understand pupils' different motivations and tap into these to engage them in learning. Some schools are developing 'The Motivated School', an approach which considers the aspects of the school and classroom climate which enhance motivation and techniques teachers may use to respond to the range of motivations of their pupils ( www.betterbehaviourscotland.gov.uk).

Whole-school and whole-class approaches will support a more positive approach to school and attendance generally. For individual pupils who disengage from learning and where other causes have not been identified (see 4.2 - 4.7) some schools have successfully worked in partnership with programmes of personal and social development, such as XL (Prince's Trust), Skillforce, outdoor activity or environmental programmes, to prevent pupils from disengaging from school. Enterprise activities have also become an important feature of schools' learning and imaginative approaches have successfully engaged pupils at risk of dropping out, such as a social enterprise for school DJs.

As the school leaving age draws near, whether for summer or Christmas leavers, some pupils and parents may express a preference for work experience or employment. While schools may develop programmes of learning with vocational and work experience elements, in partnership with other agencies such as careers services, colleges and enterprise companies, ad hoc arrangements should be discouraged. Parents have a legal responsibility to ensure their child attends school until he or she reaches school leaving age (section 30 Education (Scotland) Act 1980). In the case of looked after children the education authority as corporate parent will hold that responsibility and work will be underway on the transition into independent living. Any arrangements agreed by the school must take account of the health and safety of the child as well as the learning provided, as described in The Safe and Well handbook (A-Z section, Residential Visits and School Trips).