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Being there is the key to success

Neil Munro looks behind the figures on school attendance and at how schools are tackling truancy.

The new motto in Scottish schools is "attendance means attainment". Schools are now at pains to stress that pupil absenteeism cannot be addressed in isolation.

"Improving attendance is probably our number one priority because of the direct link with attainment," Ian McDonald, Glasgow's depute director of education, says. "It's the first step in raising standards."

Only one of Glasgow's 38 secondaries - Cleveden - registers below the national average for total half-day absences per pupil. So the city would almost be in dereliction if it took any other view. From January, headteachers' meetings will begin to focus on setting "realistic" targets for attendance.

The publication of national tables, like those for exam results, has undoubtedly focused minds. Norman Deeley, the assistant head at Irvine Royal Academy, said the appearance of published information was the starting point for overhauling the school's attendance procedures.

"We knew the statistics we were supplying to the education authority were not accurate," Mr Deeley says. "You would have gathered in the attendance register at the beginning of the day but you knew that did not always reflect the numbers in the building at the end of the day."

Irvine Royal concentrated on first year, but not just on truancy. Low levels of attendance often revealed family or learning problems which had to be addressed, and parents were given a "quality statement" on the importance of attendance and timekeeping.

Families were left in no doubt that practices they might consider acceptable, such as going off on holiday in term time, were not acceptable to the school. The Irvine statement points out that important work which contributes to final exam grades has to be done during term time.

The importance of tackling absenteeism as a package was also underlined by Janet Davidson, assistant head at St Machar Academy in Aberdeen. She looks on developments such as the buddy system for first years as part of the attempt "to motivate pupils and to tap into their interests, making school an enjoyable experience and a place to which they want to come. That in turn helps their self-esteem and therefore their achievements".

St Machar, which serves five of the seven designated areas of deprivation in Aberdeen, also attaches teachers as "buddies" to second-year pupils. Around 80 staff are involved with two or three youngsters each, keeping an eye on any learning and attendant problems. Acute behaviour, absence or learning cases are referred to the guidance staff or senior management.

Significantly St Machar's guidance teachers are given minimum time teaching their own subject, which releases them to deal with personal and social education.

Problems with pupil attendance bring up schools particularly sharply against children's home circumstances. Mary Taylor, the head of Ferguslie primary in Paisley, serving one of the most deprived areas of the country, says it is difficult to challenge many youngsters arriving late in the morning "when they may be the only members of their household getting up at all at that time".

Mrs Taylor, who spoke at a conference on attendance at the Scottish Office on Tuesday, stresses the importance of schools striking the right attitudes in dealing with irregular attenders. "We don't believe in going in heavy-handedly. Our policy is that, while attendance and punctuality are important, the child is important as well. So the approach should be one of 'it's good that you are here' rather than 'what, late again?'."

This attempt to establish the school as a comfort zone for some of the most vulnerable children in the country should also extend to the classroom, Mrs Taylor believes. "We ensure that classes which are achieving good attendance share their practice with others. The factors include a welcoming atmosphere, an appropriate curriculum and good teaching which holds the pupils' interest.

"The attitudes of teachers are also vital so that, if a child has been off, it's better to be greeted with 'nice to see you back' rather than 'where have you been?' Ferguslie has instituted a monthly award for the class with the best attendance, in the appropriate form of an alarm clock. There is keen competition, Mrs Taylor reports.

The importance of changing attitudes was also stressed by Oona Church, head of St Peter's primary in Dumbarton.

"The issue has to be high profile because of the effect non-attendance has on the school and the pupil's progress," Mrs Church adds. She personally monitors attendance levels from the computer print-out and, if absence is above a predetermined level, the parents are contacted. "There is often a pattern, " she says.

Parental contact is also a key element in the strategy at St Machar where a parent support group has been set up. It proved an invaluable ally as the school sought to break up a group of eight 13 to 15-year-olds who were sometimes missing half of the school week.

"Their truanting was simply the result of peer pressure," Mrs Davidson says. "The parents were tearing their hair out as much as we were. But we worked together with them suggesting, for example, that they should introduce rewards at home to back up those offered by the school for improved attendance. "

Schools now routinely mount a twin-pronged attack on the problem. The carrot of praise and reward is balanced by the stick of rigorous monitoring and pressure. Ferguslie has opened a "late book", St Peter's puts attendance on the agenda for parents' evenings, Irvine Royal arranges for the attendance officer to visit the homes of all pupils on the third day of any unexplained absence, and St Machar Academy has a home-school contract although it is more about general expectations than binding agreements.

Some sanctions will be more effective than others. Irvine Royal, for example, insists on an agreed level of attendance before pupils are allowed to take part in events such as excursions and discos.

The school, half of whose pupils receive free meals or clothing grants, is also involved with its associated primaries in finding solutions; this led it to target a group of a dozen vulnerable P7 pupils thought to be most at risk of truanting in S1.

Ferguslie also takes part in the transfer arrangements with Merksworth High which involves an environmental studies day out to Millport; one feature of this is that the P7 pupils are accompanied by the S1 pupils who have perfect attendance. The buddy system run at Ferguslie for the past three years, in which P7 youngsters are paired with P1 children, is another part of the process of making children comfortable and settled.

St Machar also identified as potential truants pupils with behavioural problems who find reintegration into the classroom too much to handle. The school will pilot a social skills programme next term with two groups of 12, headed by a specially-trained member of staff. In the past this has been done directly by a psychologist but Mrs Davidson says they now want their own in-house, more accessible expertise.

Pay-off time may have arrived. Irvine recorded an 8.58 per cent absence rate for first year pupils from the start of last session to the end of November; it was reduced to 5 per cent for the same August-November period this year.

Ferguslie primary reports that parents now phone the school if their children are absent. "That would not have happened six years ago," Mrs Taylor says. "It means we spend less time chasing after people."

Mr Deeley at Irvine Royal is cautious about making claims. "We did put a lot of effort into targeting the first year. The results have been encouraging and a 3.58 per cent improvement is certainly going in the right direction, although the nature of the year group may be one of the factors.

"But if 95 per cent attendance can be achieved in first year and the pupils settle in, there is no reason to believe there will be any deterioration in second year - unless, of course, there are external factors which we may need to look at next."

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