The head who won't give up

12th February 1999 at 00:00
MARY IANARELLI seems the epitome of the quintessential modern headteacher - effervescent, energetic, enthusiastic.

The head of St Catherine's primary in Edinburgh's Gracemount area needs these qualities in abundance. She presides over buildings that were thrown up rather than planned and a catchment with more than its fair share of challenges.

Although the latest tables show her school does not have the worst attendance record in Edinburgh - 14.5 days authorised absence per pupil - it compares with a city average of 10.5 and she is determined that will not continue.

The increasing flow of school performance data tells her that picture is not as rosy as it looks. Allowing for the simplicities attached to free meals as a defining characteristic of schools, St Catherine's is none the less in the middle range yet it shares its absence rate with schools whose poverty index is much worse.

Link that high incidence of non-attendance to pupil attainment which is lower than in more disadvantaged schools and Mrs Ianarelli had no difficulty in deciding her priorities soon after she was appointed 18 months ago.

"I was struck by the number of pupils who came out of class saying they were unwell," she says. "There was also an acceptance of late-coming, pupils often turning up half an hour late in the company of their parents for whom it was clearly no big deal.

"Obviously we were not getting the message across to parents and, if we don't get that right, we won't get it across to the pupils either. So we put a lot of effort into improving our communication with parents."

An "early bird certificate" given to the class with the most complete turnout "was positive in that it made the children realise the importance of turning up so as not to let the side down".

The school also pursued parents. Three days of unexplained absences triggers an automatic pro forma to parents with space for an explanation. An absence rate of 15 per cent or more since the start of the session brings a demand for improvement.

"A response from the school is important not just from the point of view of improving attendance and attainment," Mrs Ianarelli says. "What sort of message is it for families where the kids are absent but the school doesn't bother to get in touch? Either they think the school doesn't know - or that it knows but doesn't care."

Mrs Ianarelli acknowledges that tackling absenteeism has to be constantly worked at. "I recognise that there is a culture of non-attendance, that there are hard lives facing some families for whom turning up at school is not the top priority and that some parents have authoritarian memories of school which works against what we are trying to achieve."

But she is particularly dismissive of those who believe nothing can be done, part of the "in this area" syndrome. "I grew up around this area, as did my depute, as did the parish priest, so none of us takes kindly to the assumptions behind the phrase."

Improvement is none the less a slow process. Mrs Ianarelli recalls the primary 3 school phobic who was only persuaded to part company with his mother if he began the school day helping her out or going to the teaching base rather than his class.

"Sometimes he still doesn't show," she says, "but at least we are making progress and we have established the all-important ingredients of trust and contact with the parent."

St Catherine's shares a support unit with two primaries at the neighbouring Burdiehouse primary, a resource for problem children which the head describes as invaluable. It is part of what she dubs a "time out strategy", giving children space to avoid playground or classroom conflicts.

Mrs Ianarelli and her depute run a lunch club for children likely to be caught up in confrontations with other pupils. It acts as a point of contact but also allows her to indulge herself. Cards and dominoes help to cement relationships.

Schools fighting hard to overcome pupil disaffection and parental disinterest have to be constantly innovative, Mrs Ianarelli has found.

"One pupil came to me and said: 'I'm never going to get one of these certificates for a day's attendance, so what about a certificate for half a day?' "I said that was no problem. Little did he realise I would have given him a certificate for 10 minutes' attendance if I thought it would make a difference. But he clearly wanted recognition for his efforts and that was a very important start."

Tackling pupil absenteeism may involve straightforward and even simple steps but each one makes heavy demands on teachers' time. Mrs Ianarelli could not embark on a strategy last year because the school had no promoted member of staff without a teaching commitment; it now has a depute head.

She believes schools must have two objectives. "We have got to give our pupils strategies to manage their behaviour, but we also have to make what we do attractive. Pupils need to be encouraged to come to school.

"I view it as a main road. Some will veer off from time to time, and our job is to nudge them back in the right direction."

Life choices, page 15

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