Understanding attendance at Peacehaven and Varndean

Tackling the issues through parental engagement and person-centred counselling

Aims

The aim of the Peacehaven project was to increase school attendance among disadvantaged students. By partnering with the local youth centre, Peacehaven Community School hoped that positive engagement outside of school – conversations with and positive mentoring from trusted adults in the community – would help identify reasons for non-attendance. In addition, the project aimed to identify new starters at risk of persistent absence due to poor primary school attendance, and to provide professional development training to better equip school and youth centre staff to deal with absence issues.

The case study for this project also features a different approach to tackling non-attendance – person-centred counselling – undertaken at Varndean School and Brighton Aldridge Community Academy.

METHODOLOGY

  • Students at risk of, or with high rates of, persistent absence from Peacehaven Community School were identified and tracked throughout the project.
  • Schemes of work were designed for youth workers to use at Peacehaven Youth Centre to help identify barriers to attendance in a positive, non-confrontational way.
  • The families of students whose primary school attendance suggested they were at risk of persistent absence were invited to information evenings at the youth centre.
  • Professional development sessions were held so that school and youth centre staff could develop a strong knowledge of attendance issues, policy and procedures to share with students and their families.
  • Rewards for good attendance, such as postcards, calls home, afternoon teas and a celebratory event in the summer term, positively reinforced the importance of good attendance to families.
  • A staff member engaged students arriving late for school in a positive conversation about their lateness. Families were called into school if lateness became a regular occurrence.
  • Clear expectations about attendance were set out in inductions for in-year admissions (often poor attenders), with discussions about the barriers to attendance and close monitoring.
  • The project included an extensive system for tracking and monitoring attendance, with new initiatives focusing on disadvantaged students.

IMPACT

  • The number of students in Wave 1 (attendance of 97% and above) rose by almost 10% over the duration of the project.
  • A large number of disadvantaged students improved their attendance from Wave 3 (91.9 to 93.9%) to Wave 2 (94% to 96.9%).
  • The number of students on or above the national average for attendance (94.4%) increased by 7% for the whole school (disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged) and by 5% among disadvantaged students.
  • There was a big increase in the number of students achieving 100% attendance, particularly for Years 7 and 11.
  • Attendance has now increased within the school due to a focused drive that has included reminders, data, intervention and incentives. This improved engagement has started to filter out into the wider community, with parents more willing to communicate and engage with the attendance team and school.

KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Students were perceptive and reacted well to conversations on attendance. Morning meet-and-greets with students late for school had a positive effect, and late marks decreased over the course of the project.
  • Students who talked to the youth centre worker gave valuable feedback on the barriers to attendance, which the youth worker was able to provide to the school. For example, it was clear that poor attendance affected students’ progress, made it hard for them to catch up, and affected relationships with staff and their peers, as well as creating a poor self-image.
  • Most of the students involved in the project took part in the reward tea party at the youth centre. While it was an enjoyable afternoon, for future events each learner will be invited to bring a friend to make it more attractive as an incentive.
  • Greater time investment would allow the school to collaborate more effectively with its community partners, embed new practice, record outcomes, and create a formal information-sharing system between youth workers and the school, so that all partners can work together to further develop practice to address attendance issues.

VARNDEAN AND BACA – A PERSON-CENTRED COUNSELLING APPROACH

Another approach to tackling attendance grew out of a collaboration between Varndean School and Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA). Attendance at BACA had been a serious concern for years, with whole school attendance dropping below 90% in 2017-18. The assistant heads at both schools had collaborated on attendance initiatives and shared good practice but were frustrated by the lack of progress with a cohort of Year 10 and 11 students who were disengaged from education and unresponsive to other interventions. This project aimed to find new ways to reconnect them with education.

Taking an analytical counselling approach, the project worked with a person-centred counsellor to look at the complex mix of factors underlying non-attendance. A group of 19 BACA students (eight disadvantaged Year 11s, 11 Year 7 to 10 students) with chronic absence and complex personal and family issues were identified and they and their families were invited to attend counselling sessions. The counsellor met with them at home and in the community, working with them to identify barriers to attendance, build relationships and agree individual action plans. She also liaised with the school, providing feedback on progress. Students’ attendance was monitored to evaluate the impact of the approach.

Considering the complexities of each situation, the person-centred approach seemed to unlock a willingness to re-engage with education. Students responded well to having a regular point of contact at school. However,  the counsellor had to be flexible to provide the support students needed, and if support wasn’t available, attendance regressed. Five Year 11 students attended all of their timetabled exam sessions and improved their attendance by an average of 5.8% from autumn term levels. Meanwhile, four Year 7 to 10 students improved their attendance by an average of 7.4% compared to the autumn term, while one student (previously a complete refuser) returned to school.

Findings

  • Engaging with parents and students is critical in addressing attendance issues, but there were still some families the approach couldn’t reach due to long-standing patterns of non-attendance not being addressed.
  • Following a full analysis of the issues, a problem-solving and person-centred counselling approach to empower individuals can work.
  • Understanding the complexities underlying attendance can help develop useful action plans, however, these plans must be properly supported if there is to be lasting change.
  • There is value in working in a supportive rather than a punitive way with some families.
  • A third party can work to establish relationships with students and families that are beyond the school’s reach.
  • If this intensive approach is it to be replicated, further thinking about how to avoid developing dependency among vulnerable families would be needed.

Recommendations

  • Continue with the project at BACA with a greater focus on current Year 10 disadvantaged students.
  • Implement the use of the Attend form at BACA and Varndean in 2019-20 with the most complex cases.
  • Share learning from this project with the Brighton and Hove Behaviour and Attendance Partnership and the Strategic School Improvement Fund 2 attendance project group in Brighton and Hove and West Sussex.
  • Develop a less intense version of the model to use with Year 7 to 9 students at BACA to see if the benefits can be realised. This model should run for a longer time so that more data can be collected and the approach modified as necessary.
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Context

Peacehaven Community School is a fully comprehensive school on the coast with a specialist on-site facility for speech and language. The school is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, but attendance is low and is therefore a priority. The school’s 2017-18 persistent absence rate was 19.4%, significantly higher than the national average of 13.5% for 2016-17.

Duration

January 2019 to June 2019

Partners

Peacehaven Youth Centre and Peacehaven Community School

Funding source

Uni Connect (Innovation Fund)