Being there is the key to success

12th December 1997 at 00:00
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-handedl y. 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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