Can Effective Family Engagement Support Improving School Attendance?

Published On: 11 October 2023

In the world of school attendance, we’re seeing data dashboards, questions about frequency and timing of data collection, and comparisons between pre- and post-pandemic rates. It would be fair to say that the spotlight on attendance has never been brighter.

In this blog, we explore some of the reasons behind student absence and the role that family engagement could potentially have in reducing persistent absence rates.

Persistent absence is making news

In England, the Department for Education has recently announced four new hubs to help improve school attendance. Schools can opt-in to providing daily attendance data directly to the Department for Education (DfE), however in a meeting of the Persistent Absence and Support for Disadvantaged Children inquiry, Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb suggested that in time, the sharing of data will become mandatory.

Meanwhile, in Wales, newly released absence data shows approximately one in six secondary students are persistently absent from school, three times higher than pre-pandemic levels. This is the first time data has been published since 2019, with primary school data expected in spring 2024.

Recently in Scotland, education secretary Jenny Gilruth informed the Education, Children and Young People Committee that she has asked Education Scotland to look into attendance to provide more advice, while comparisons are being made in the news between the data collection carried out in Scotland compared to England and Wales.

In Northern Ireland, the Education Authority has now completed a consultation on the Education Welfare Service Transformation Project Report, but suggests the project will take several years to implement.

Why is consistently high attendance important?

Attendance matters to schools as studies show that students with higher attainment have lower levels of absence. However, pressures on schools to manage, investigate and then ‘fix’ attendance concerns are growing quickly. Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza said recently to Tes magazine that she is “very concerned” that headteachers are not getting the support they need.

Consistent attendance promotes academic success, but, for some, there are barriers that stand in the way of regular attendance. While targets for schools to aim for may drive improved attendance rates, this can’t work in isolation. We also need to consider why some children are persistently absent and provide supports to both children and their families to enable them to attend.

What role do schools have in supporting families?

If you were to ask someone who doesn’t work in education, they would possibly tell you that a school’s function is only to educate the learners that attend. Those working in education, of course, know that school is so much more than that.

Schools play a huge role in supporting families in the wider community. They offer a safe haven of help, advice and sometimes, just a listening ear. These relationships between parents/ carers and school staff are fundamental to a wrap-around education where everyone is driving towards a goal of consistent experiences between home and school.

In recent years, families have increasingly turned to schools to support them in navigating their difficulties in accessing support for their children, particularly those with additional needs, often feeling like they have nowhere else to go.

Schools across the country do a phenomenal job at ‘plugging the gap’ until other support is established, however this can sometimes mean that school and family relationships understandably become focused on process and bureaucracy, and perhaps not as much about shared thinking, consistency and problem solving as we’d like.

Understanding the reasons behind persistent absence

There are numerous reasons as to why a young person may be persistently absent from school. These can include:

  • Physical or mental illnesses
  • Academic difficulties and struggling to access the curriculum
  • Bullying and relationships issues with peers
  • Unmet needs due to diagnosed or suspected Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
  • Caring responsibilities for other family members
  • Feeling that school is not relevant or important to them

In January 2022, Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza launched an Attendance Audit, to understand more about children who are not attending school regularly. Her report said, “Until we have a system that is designed for and around children, using their, and their families’, voices as the catalyst for making things better we cannot be confident that every child is happy, healthy and safe. We need everyone who has a role in children’s lives to design and implement systems and services with this same vision at their heart.”

So can more effective family engagement improve attendance?

We think so, yes! But first we need to evaluate just how meaningful our relationships with families are now. For some parents and carers, the only relationship they may have with their child’s school is because things have gone wrong in the past.

If we started a phone call home by saying, “I’m calling to talk to you about your child’s behaviour,” how many of our families would assume that we were about to tell them something negative? Behaviour and attendance can easily become the only reasons that some families have interactions with their school.

Instead, it’s key that we involve families in all aspects of school, the good, the challenging and, most importantly, the ways forward. With more positive relationships with families, we develop a broader picture of our young people as individuals to understand and support them better.

Supporting a young person throughout their time in education is a team effort and making space within our teams for parents and carers can then create supports for understanding and addressing persistent absence, moving forward together with shared goals and aspirations. When school and families are working together, children feel more understood and barriers to attendance can be reduced and hopefully, over time, eliminated. We can celebrate small steps of progress and measure the wins rather than only focusing on the problems.

The importance of trust

When we consider working with our families, trust is key. Trust and openness are the foundation blocks for understanding the correlation in experience between home and school.

Our schools continue to offer support and guidance to families, and building relationships with the families of our most vulnerable young people is particularly essential. We’re striving for consistency. Could some of the strategies we implement in school to support understanding behaviour and de-escalation be effective at home, and vice versa? Could we see more positive improvements in absence rates, mental wellbeing, and academic outcomes if a consistent experience was created between home and school?

How do we develop better family engagement?

A joined-up approach allows us to plan for support that doesn’t stop at the school gates and offers parents/ carers more strategies they can use to support their child’s behaviour at home.

We also need to be open to learning from parents. Family engagement isn’t about teaching parents/ carers how to be better parents, it’s about developing trust, a shared language, and a shared approach to behaviour. We can be curious, and have a puzzle-solving approach, working together instead of assuming that we already know everything there is to know already.

We can offer more emotional safety to our young people by mirroring strategies at home and in the classroom offering a consistent adult response and minimising the challenges our young people face in navigating boundaries and expectations that sometimes differ greatly between home and school.

Some parents and carers are reluctant for their child to be at school when there are concerns that their child’s needs are not being met. Openness and a focus on ways forward are key to families feeling like they are working with a school and not against it. Information shared about home experiences can also allow us to create inclusive, well-informed, child-centred individual support plans for young people with additional needs.

Final thoughts…

Like all relationships, patience and time is key. For some parents and carers, their perceptions of school have built up over a period of time and creating new positive experiences will take time.

When we lead with the positives, alongside an understanding ear we can empower our families to feel as though they are valued as part of a wider support network that their child has access to.

We can offer our families a wider set of strategies and learn from them, too. For some families, it can feel like a there is a great divide between school and home. It could be that in shrinking that perceived divide, we find ourselves working together to improve school attendance.

Please let us know if you need any support with behaviour training or family engagement in your setting.