We are due for inspection within a term and feel that our work and performance generally are satisfactory. There is one serious exception: the attendance of our Year 9 pupils, despite all our efforts, has remained extremely poor - less than 83 per cent - for more than a year. This contrasts with general school attendance which is above the 90 per cent benchmark. Do we stand a risk of being ranked as a failing school because of this?
This is one of the factors that could cause a school to be seen as "failing". Whoever is to blame, such absenteeism is denying a sizeable proportion of your pupils the education they are legally entitled to, and is "affecting their achievement and disrupting progress", as the inspection handbook puts it.
It is also likely to be conveying undesirable messages to pupils, parents and the wider community about your ethos and management. It must cause some doubts about efficiency and provision for the welfare of pupils, about the nature of the partnership with parents, about working relationships with the education welfare service.
Perhaps most worrying of all, absenteeism on such a scale may mean that some pupils, unknown to home or school, are exposed to physical or moral risk.
Inspectors will want to know about the following: * the nature and composition of the absentee groups, the likely degree of truancy, the way in which the problem has developed and escalated, the steps taken by the school to deal with it; * the school's attendance policy, and how expectations about it are conveyed to parents and pupils; * how absence is recorded, evaluated and followed up; * the working relationship with the education social worker and the nature of your partnership with parents about their children's education; * whether you have incentive or reward systems in relation to attendance; * how you have reviewed the nature of the curriculum and general learning experiences of Year 9 pupils, the form and nature of teaching groups, to establish whether there are critical links between these and pupils' reluctance to attend school; * the specific steps you have taken to deal with the problem: the identification of causes, targetting of particular pupils, consultation and joint action with parents, strategies for improvement.
How likely are you to be judged a failing school because of this problem? Well, there is no doubt that persistent absenteeism on such a scale, together with the associated concerns, places you in a category where you could be perceived as a cause of serious concern.
However, it appears from what you write that your Year 9 may represent a particular circumstance that entitles you to leniency, if not sympathy.
But while inspectors may treat this as a "one-off", especially in the light of acceptable attendance elsewhere in the school, they will want substantial assurance that you remain rigorous, and in no way complacent, about the future of Year 9 as they move through the school.
Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him at The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171-782 3200. e-mail: Letters@tes1.demon.co.uk