Relationships and communication are key to improving school attendance – Marie Beale

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It is a highly individual approach. It is about communication and building relationships with families and children and being prepared to be flexible.

Marie Beale Whitefield Primary School

Relationships and communication are key to improving school attendance, says Marie Beale, the deputy headteacher of a Merseyside primary school that is bucking the national trend.

Attendance at Whitefield Primary School in Liverpool stands at approximately 96.5%, compared to the city average of 92.8% and the national average of 93.6%.

This is particularly impressive considering the context of the school. More than four-fifths of the ward it serves are in the 1% most deprived areas in the country.

Marie, who leads a SHINE-funded project at the school, shared some insights into how and why her school achieves such an excellent level of attendance.

She believes that building relationships with families and children, good communication, and flexibility are at the core of Whitefield’s success.

“We really strive for good attendance for multiple reasons,” she explained. “Firstly, in this context, there is a lot of disruption in children’s lives anyway, and school is something of a constant for them.”

Marie explained that the school prioritises attendance from a safeguarding perspective, especially for children with neurodiversity or a trauma background, where predictability is essential. “Knowing what’s happening every day is really important,” she said.

Regarding attendance challenges arising since the pandemic, Marie noted that the school has had to put more effort into identifying families where attendance is lower than average, or dipping – particularly those in the early years and up to Year 2.

Whitefield employs a family liaison officer who works on attendance along with safeguarding and other issues.

“She actively seeks to attend stay-and-plays and meet parents of the youngest children, to impress on them the importance of being in school,” explained Marie.

Parents are called on the first day if a child is absent, and then after that, they are visited at home.

Marie emphasised the importance of communication with parents, explaining that it’s not just about telling them to get their children to school, but also helping them understand the impact of missed days on their child’s learning.

“If a child has missed several days from school, we’ll explain to the parents that they have missed out on learning their phonics, or whatever it might be.”

The school sets an attendance expectation for new families and is direct in communicating the consequences of poor attendance.

Marie believes that rewarding individuals for good attendance is problematic.

“It’s difficult to reward individual attendance because for some children there is a genuine reason why they’re not attending and attendance often isn’t the child’s issue, it’s the adults’ issue.

“So, each week in assembly, we hand out trophies to the classes with the best attendance.

“With some parents, this works really well because the children want to win that trophy, and they nag their parents about going to school.”

Marie Beale

Marie stressed that children wanting to be at school is key.

“I think relationships are at the heart of what we’re doing. And that is relationships with parents, but also relationships with the children.

“We aim to have the children really wanting to come in and see their teachers.”

To make school more appealing, Whitefield has a strategy around play, which includes extended play times with teachers and working on the curriculum to ensure that learning is engaging.

The school also prioritises communication with children around attendance.

“When a child’s been off, our teachers don’t just ignore it, they will say, ‘we really missed you, yesterday’, and stress that they are part of the Whitefield family and that it’s not the same without them here.

“We’ve found this is effective in persuading children to come in, even if their parents are struggling.”

Post-Covid, in common with other settings, Whitefield has had more school refusers, who don’t attend due to anxiety.

In one recent “extreme” example, Marie worked with multiple services to discover the barriers that one significant school refuser was facing.

“I learned a lot through that process, and we now really recognise the impact of parental mental health and trauma,” she said.

“In some cases, the child may be frightened of leaving Mum because maybe she’s in an abusive situation, or maybe something else is going on.

“So now we’re quick to notice patterns. We review attendance every week and where we notice that a child struggling to come in, where relevant we are using the mental health support team. We often put them to work with the parents as well as maybe direct work with the child. And that’s had a real impact on a few key children who otherwise I think would have slipped into being school refusers.”

Whitefield strives to be flexible around attendance, working out a plan that will best help the child.

“If a child struggling to come into class in the morning, they might come in and meet with the mental health lead, or they might come in and sit in the library for the first quarter of an hour and then, when they’re ready, they go into class.

“I think you do have to puzzle out children, and schools can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is an attendance issue.’ It can be a real mental health issue.”

Marie explained that the barriers children are facing can also be about practical things like “shoes and having the right uniform”.

“It’s about getting to know the different families and the different barriers they face.

“And with different families, we will have a different approach.”

For this reason, Whitefield constantly communicates with families about attendance,

“We have a piece on attendance every week in the newsletter. If we have a phone call with a parent about any subject, we try to ask about attendance then as well.

“And whenever teachers are speaking with parents, we encourage them to make a big thing about their children being in school.”

Marie feels it is unfair to blame parents for their child’s attendance.

“You always have to put yourself into their shoes. Maybe they’re a young, single mum and their child doesn’t want to go to school. It’s quite hard, isn’t it?

“We rarely come in hard unless it’s an ongoing thing. It’s much more of a gentle approach, expressing concern, and asking if they need any help. And you’ll often find there’s something else going on that you don’t know about, or they haven’t understood the impact on their child.”

Marie believes there is no one-size-fits-all model that schools can follow to improve attendance.

“It is a highly individual approach,” she said. “It is about communication and building relationships with families and children and being prepared to be flexible.”