Schools could reach out to families through home visits and phone calls to reduce high absence rates, an education minister has suggested.
Robin Walker said schools need to look at having a targeted approach – which could include teachers ringing parents or employing someone to carry out visits to homes – in order to reach persistently absent children.
Attendance advisers, which have been recruited by the Department for Education (DfE), are set to begin their work with local authorities and multi-academy trusts with problems with persistent absence next week.
The schools minister said he wants the advisers, which were first announced in August, to spread “best practice” from schools and academy trusts which have successfully re-engaged persistently absent pupils to other schools.
Mr Walker told the PA news agency: “What we really want to do is challenge long-term unnecessary absence and support schools with improving their attendance across the board.
“So I’m not going to say now that we’re going in and we’re imposing penalties on people.
“What we want to do is create a system of support and that’s about mental wellbeing of pupils, it’s about the right approaches being spread across the system when it comes to the use of registers, and how to follow up with children who are out of school.”
Mr Walker visited one of the schools with above average attendance rates, the London Academy, on Thursday to see how it has tackled absences.
He highlighted that the north London school has taken a “proactive approach” to tackling persistent absences, adding that the academy has employed a social worker “to go out and reach” families through home visits.
Speaking from the school, Mr Walker told PA it was this “kind of good practice” that the DfE wants its attendance advisers to be spreading in other schools, local authorities and multi-academy trusts.
When asked whether more schools should send staff out on home visits, Mr Walker said: “I think what they need to look at – and what they’ve done here very effectively – is to have a specific approach to reaching out when children are persistently absent and managing that and using the resources of being a very large academy to be able to employ someone specifically on that task.
“Also to have heads of year ringing parents where there might be an unexplained absence and going out.”
But he added that he would not want teachers “to be away from teaching”.
The minister said: “We want to work with the education system both to create the pull in terms of getting children back into school, but also the push from families, from parents, from carers to recognise that that is the best, safest place for them to be and where they will be able to get the best support.”
Mr Walker added: “I recognise that Covid is still with us and causing some unavoidable absence – but this is all the more reason that we must all take action to address every avoidable reason for a child not being in school.”
His comments come after Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi vowed to tackle persistent absenteeism of children “head on” last month.
James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said the vast majority of schools already use existing staff to work with families to try to improve attendance when an issue is identified.
He said: “The challenge is that tackling persistent absenteeism takes more than a quick conversation or a one-off visit, it involves hours of work to address the issue and a sustained commitment from all involved.
“The task has been made all the harder in recent years by budget cuts. Many schools simply can no longer afford a dedicated member of staff to carry out this crucial work.
“In addition, many local authorities have had to cut back the staff whose job it was to intervene when attendance became an issue. If the Government really wants to tackle this issue it must be prepared to invest in the support services schools so desperately need.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The reasons behind persistent absence are complicated and far from simple to solve and cases very often involve disadvantaged families.
“Schools and colleges take this extremely seriously and many already actively use some of the measures that the schools minister has outlined.
“Some schools and colleges already employ designated support staff to work with students and their families or allocate specific responsibilities to existing staff.
“They take a holistic approach, putting the welfare and wellbeing of the student and their family at the heart of a process that often involves home visits and daily phone calls to parents and guardians.”