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Best Practice Research:

Improving attendance at Leek High School

Name of researcher: Eddie Wilkes.

Date of research: Academic year, 2000 ┴ 2001.

School address: Leek High School, Springfield Road, Leek, Staffordshire.
ST13 8XF.

Email: ew@leekhigh.staffs.sch.uk
Tel: 01538 483036

Pupil age range: 13-16 years.

Original aims:

To raise achievement within Leek High School through improved student attendance rates. This was against a background of a downward trend in attendance.

Attendance rates had been:

1996/97 ┴ 91.6%, 1997/98 ┴ 90.7%, 1998/99 ┴ 90.0%.

A specific target was set to improve attendance within Leek High School for the period of the spring term 2001 by 2% compared with the same period in 2000.

Refined aims:

the overall aim did not change. The background against which it was set did. The attendance rate for 1999/2000 dropped to 88.5%, îraising the stakes├. The changing schedule for the completion of BPRS allowed for attendance strategies to be monitored over a longer period. The same 2% target was taken, but this was to be for the academic year 2000/2001 compared with 1999/2000.

Outcome: For the academic year 2000/2001 Leek High School achieved 91.6% attendance, a rise of 3.1% on the previous year, following four years of decline. In the first term 2001/2002 attendance is 92.6%. During January 2002 we have been hit very hard by illness.

Leek High School background.

Leek High School is one of two 13-18 comprehensive school in the market town of Leek, in North Staffordshire. It is smaller than most secondary schools, with 566 students on roll, 123 of whom are in the sixth form. The school is fed primarily by one middle school, which takes students from the ages 9-12 years.

Students are drawn from a very large and diverse catchment area, which is part urban and part rural, including isolated hamlets and farms and containing some areas of social disadvantage. The large catchment area means that approximately half of the students in the school travel by bus, for some students this meaning a one-hour journey in each direction each day. Just over twelve per cent of students are entitled to free school meals, which is in line with the national average. The number of students identified as having special educational needs is also in line with the national average, though the number of students identified as having more serious needs is higher than average.

The school has 55 staff, 35 of who are teaching staff. Of the teaching staff 16 have been at the school for over ten years and many of these for nearer to twenty years. In this time the number of students on roll has fallen from over 1100, partly due to the move from an 11-18 school but also because of a fall in the number of youngsters in the town.

Three years ago the local education authority (LEA) undertook a review of education within the town. Initially the proposal that resulted was to amalgamate the two secondary schools onto one site, situated on the grounds occupied by the other secondary school. Though the proposal was for amalgamation it was perceived as a proposal for the closure of Leek High School by many of the local community, who fought hard against it. In completing the review the LEA reversed its original proposal, agreeing to maintain two thriving secondary schools in the town. However, the uncertainty is still to be fully overcome, and some of the local community still feel the school is under threat of closure, in spite of LEA reassurances.

R¬sum¬ of literature reviewed.

Establishing that good attendance is a basic pre-requisite of raising achievement was central to the aim of the project. The DFEE suggest a clear link between the two in their strategy document îTackling Truancy Together├. They state that,

ťśimprovements in standards of education at school can be achieved only if children are attending regularly.ö  DFEE. 1999

Le Riche similarly felt that good attendance is essential to youngsters receiving the education to which they are îentitled├, whilst taking this further in questioning the validity of much absence. She argues,

ťśregular attendance at school is essential if students are to receive the education to which they are entitled, that absence is frequently avoidable and that much can be achieved by staff attitudes towards it.ö Le Riche. 1995

Whilst the relationship between good attendance at school and achievement of potential may seem obvious, it was clear from the range of literature available on improving attendance that poor attendance was not attributable to any one factor. Reid confirmed the complex nature of the issue, saying of poor attendance,

ťThere is no single causeśif there was, finding a solution would be easyö  Reid. 1999

It is this that makes the introduction of the appropriate measures to improve attendance so crucial. Hallam and Roaf take this further. They were clear that not only are there a wide range of factors which affect attendance, but also that the diverse nature of schools has to be taken into account when tackling the issue of attendance. Their findings led them to propose that,

ťEach school has its own characteristic pattern of attendance which is dependant on the nature of the school community and the school itself. To improve attendance schools must understand their existing pattern of attendance and the reason for it.ö  Hallam and Roaf. 1995

For any school seeking to improve attendance this had to make the initial task that of recognising its own key issues, before managing the means by which these issues will be tackled. As Stoll puts it,

ťSchools must first of all diagnose the problem before defining ways of dealing with itö Stoll. 1995.

Although several authors have looked at possible reasons for poor attendance the author found no definitive checklist. There is however broad agreement regarding what have been found to be the key factors revealed through research. Following their survey of Hertfordshire secondary schools in 1993, Smith and Ford suggested several key points which they felt could be considered by schools in attempting to develop good practice to improve attendance. A summary of their key points is shown below.

Key points for consideration in attempting to improve attendance.

§  A developing and appropriate curriculum.

§  Support mechanisms for teachers in dealing with disruptive students.

§  Strategies for monitoring post registration truancy are monitored and reviewed.

§  Attendance and punctuality are given a high profile throughout the school.

§  Issues of attendance and punctuality are incorporated into the whole school merit system.

§  All staff share responsibility for attendance matters.

§  Attendance recording systems are constantly reviewed.

§  The school partnership with the education welfare system is based around focussed meetings.

§  Clear school policies on attendance and punctuality are developed and communicated to students and parents. Smith and Ford. 1993.

 

These key points proved a useful basis for case study.

Research methods

A case study approach was essential to îdig beneath├ figures showing an accelerating downward trend. The author had arrived at the school as a new deputy head at the start of the summer term 2000, so had few pre-conceptions regarding the reasons for the trend.

The case study allowed the key points of good practice highlighted through a thorough literature review to act as a checklist for Leek High School. From this a range of strategies was developed to fill any gaps revealed.

Interviews with various individuals, including students, support staff, teachers and parents all played their part in deciding how the strategies could be successfully implemented.

Changes resulting from the case study.

Clarifying the link between good attendance and levels of attainment. This was initiated through assemblies and continued through work in form time. In particular this introductory phase focussed on asking students to consider what they felt was an acceptable rate of attendance and relating various rates to numbers of lessons missed, e.g. an attendance rate of 90% may not sound bad, but meant missing one day or five lessons per fortnight.

Raising awareness for individual students of their personal rate of attendance. All students recorded their personal attendance, updated each half term and kept in their record of achievement as a graph. Students were expected to annotate their graphs to explain any îdips├. Form tutors also kept a form chart, displayed in the form room and showing form attendance in half term blocks.

A system of rewards linked to good attendance. All students achieving 100% attendance throughout a half term received a certificate recognising this achievement. When interviewed several students rated this as a factor that had encouraged them come to school when they may otherwise have taken an odd day off. In each half term block the form achieving the best attendance in each year group were rewarded with a box of chocolates, presented in assembly. Again, form tutors reported that this was a motivating factor where their form had a realistic chance of winning the reward, with students motivating each other to attend. Good attendance was linked into the whole school rewards system, linked to effort across a range of subjects and resulting in an end of year trip to Alton Towers, funded by the school. To qualify for the reward students now also had to achieve a 92.5% attendance record. Again several students and form tutors reported that this had been a motivating factor.

A developing role for the form tutor in monitoring attendance. All form tutors were asked, initially through a staff meeting, to identify students in their own form who had no attendance problems, who had low level attendance problems and who had serious attendance problems. At the same time the attendance rewards systems were introduced and discussed, with agreement being reached that the form tutor should be at the heart of this system. Form tutors felt that this was the first time they had been formally involved in student attendance beyond marking the register.

First day contact. In discussion with form tutors and pastoral heads there had been a clear identification of a regular problem getting notes from parents following students absences, and although form tutors were îchasing up├ this was often unsatisfactorily resolved. In some cases form tutors believed that parents were condoning unnecessary absences. A letter was sent home asking all parents to contact the school on the first morning of any genuine absence, and where this didn├t happen a designated member of the office staff made contact with parents. Following an initial period in which the burden was heavy, the number of phone calls that needed to be made reduced and form tutors commented on the reduced amount of time spent collecting notes. The response from parents was mixed, though most appreciated the school caring enough to check absences. One clear outcome reported by form tutors was a reduction in the number of two and three day absences.

Outcome.

For the academic year 2000/2001 Leek High School achieved 91.6% attendance, a rise of 3.1% on the previous year, following four years of decline. In the first term 2001/2002 attendance is 92.6%.

The future.

In developing processes to improve attendance it became clear that good attendance is embedded in the culture of a school. From discussions with students, staff and parents there were indications that good attendance had not previously been recognised as an achievement, and that poor attendance was not always challenged. The systems now in place have started to change the culture, but systems are not self-maintaining yet. This has to be the longer-term aim.

The development to date has been largely internal. The key questions that the author could not pursue revolved around the need for a multi-agency approach to improving attendance. Whilst there has been genuine success in tackling the issue of îspasmodic attendance├, more work needs to be done to achieve success where absence has become îentrenched├.

 

 

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