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Inspectors' brains go missing on issue of absence

Ofsted must look beyond bald attendance figures, writes David Sassoon.

Everything in moderation. So saith the wise person. So, why is it that inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education take the issue of compliance to such a ridiculous extreme when judging a school against the template of the inspection framework?

Take pupil attendance. We know from Department for Education and Skills statistics that the national average for pupil attendance in primary schools is 94.2 per cent. In secondary schools, it is 91.8 per cent.

For unauthorised absence (pupils who play hooky for at least half a day in the year) the national average in primary schools is 0.4 per cent, and 1.1 per cent in secondaries.

Schools that fall below these averages are hauled over the coals and asked to do something. For schools whose figures fall below these national norms, attendance becomes a key issue in the inspection report.

In my experience, inspectors don't always look carefully behind the statistics to seek out explanations from heads and governors. This is because inspectors are scared out of their wits that the Ofsted bureaucracy will chide them for not complying with the rules.

There are various reasons why pupils are absent, and boosting their attendance may be beyond the school's control. Seeking explanations for absences is time-consuming, and many do a great job under trying circumstances. But do inspectors know about this? Do they take the trouble to find out what schools are doing to combat absence, or is that too much bother?

Take the case of an infant school in Wembley, north-west London, which was inspected recently. It was castigated for having an average absence figure of 9 per cent, making attendance a key issue. The fact that unauthorised absence stood at 0 per cent mattered little. The head, governors and education welfare officer were not doing enough to ensure that bums were on seats for 190 days in the academic year.

The head had explained to the inspectors that more than 95 per cent of pupils came from non-white communities. Many of the children were from the families of asylum-seekers. Several were homeless and most came from the Indian sub-continent.

Accordingly, a large number of the children in the school continued to have filial links with the Indian sub-continent, others with the Middle East and Africa.

Celebratory events such as weddings and landmark birthdays of elderly relatives as well as some tragic events had led to several parents requesting time off to take their children abroad.

Flights are much more affordable during the "low" seasons for those without much money. The head explained to inspectors that she had done her best to restrict such absences to two weeks. She ensured that parents were making requests for good reason and that children were given work to do while they were abroad.

As a consequence, the rate of attendance at the school was trapped at a figure well below the national average, so the inspectors were not happy bunnies. They alleged that children were not learning when out of school.

The head countered that pupils were learning a great deal when taken to their heritage countries and experiencing different cultures. But the inspectors did not accept this argument.

Ofsted also expects schools to promote good relationships with parents and the community. Everyone acknowledges that this objective is very important to children's happiness, learning and development.

If the head had taken a draconian approach towards attendance and refused permission, undoubtedly there would have been a rise in the number of unauthorised absences to well above its exemplary 0 per cent record. A second - and more important - setback would have been that relationships between school and parents, which were praised by inspectors, would have deteriorated and had a detrimental effect on the pupils.

In recent times, Ofsted has come in for severe criticism. Given that its reputation has been built mostly on making judgments about schools, it is not surprising that the manner in which it operates will be constantly under the microscope.

What I aim to do here is to appeal to inspectors' higher-level intelligences and urge them to look behind the bald figures.

Inspectors need to moderate their judgments when they write their reports.

Certainly, everything is not as it appears.

Sometimes there are very sound reasons why particular schools fall short of the average attendance figures.

If Ofsted inspectors were to dig beneath the raw statistics, they might be pleasantly surprised. Certainly, mere compliance is not the be-all and end-all of inspections.

David Sassoon is an education consultant

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