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Assemblies and praise make a difference

League tables of attendance revealed an uncomfortable reality at Liberton High. Only a handful of secondaries in Edinburgh's traditional areas of disadvantage outstripped its absence record.

The school's roll is just over 600 and Gwen Kinghorn, the headteacher, says: "It is an area with considerable economic deprivation in pockets and it is reflected in income, unemployment, housing and health statistics."

Absence rates of 15 per cent authorised and 1 per cent unauthorised prompted a rethink shortly after she took over 18 months ago, an initiative influenced by her background as a guidance teacher.

Attendance has been pushed up the list of priorities to improve the school's overall ethos of achievement. It features prominently in the school development plan.

Parents have been reminded through school newsletters about their duties, pupils have been reminded at the reborn morning assemblies about the value of attendance and punctuality and certificates of attendance have been introduced with sponsorship from Standard Life.

The certificates, an idea borrowed from Kilsyth Academy, reward 99-100 per cent attendance with a gold award, 96-98 per cent with a silver and 92-95 per cent with a bronze. Official ceremonies raise the status of the initiative and in the first six month almost half the school picked up awards.

Attendance matters, Mrs Kinghorn argues, and home and community factors are not excuses. "If pupils get into the habit of not coming or being late it may be something that lasts throughout life. Employers ask about attendance and punctuality and they will not want to touch pupils who do not turn up on time and take days off. The kind of values we are trying to instill will be of benefit to students," she says.

She believes all pupils have their worth and it is the school's duty to cultivate abilities and talents. If pupils are not at school, they will not develop. Eight of the more persistent non-attenders are currently working with the education welfare officer and youth strategy worker to improve confidence in attending, while parents are targeted to offer support. Guidance staff have given a renewed emphasis to attendance and student reports contain computerised attendance read-outs.

It all adds up to a concerted attack. If pupils believe they can get away with it, they will, Mrs Kinghorn argues. There are various complex reasons for unexplained absences, she believes, from late night jobs and sleeping in to bullying and fear of school or dislike of particular subjects.

The school newsletter also reminds parents who condone absences: "Remember, shopping with you, keeping you company, looking after you or a younger brother or sister, waiting for the television repair man, or looking after the house means that your son or daughter is missing out. School does make a difference. "

Attendance is not an easy issue when there is a culture of absence and Mrs Kinghorn accepts patterns are slow to change. But the 1995-96 figures for authorised absence show a fall of 3 per cent.

Like other heads, she would like more sophistication in how the figures are recorded, although she recognises they do reveal trends. The real issue she states is "to look beyond the figures and find out why it is pupils do not attend for part or the whole day".

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