School with worst truancy rate now praised by Ofsted

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Pupils at Plant Hill Arts College were 10 times more likely to bunk off than the national average

To be branded the school with the worst truancy in England would be frustrating enough.

But for Plant Hill Arts College in Manchester the label is doubly annoying, for it has recently been praised by Ofsted for its work tackling its attendance problems.

Figures published by the Government last week placed the school in the worst position on the national league table for unauthorised attendance. They showed that pupils at Plant Hill missed 10.9 per cent of half-day sessions, making them 10 times more likely to bunk off lessons than the national average.

Yet the "new" findings are already out of date, as they were recorded during the 200809 school year.

In contrast, a monitoring visit by an Ofsted inspector earlier this year painted a vastly more positive picture of the small comprehensive, noting that "due to a significant and continuing effort, the college's rates of attendance have improved".

The school has worked "skillfully" with families whose children had a track record of poor attendance, "whilst not hesitating to use more punitive measures if required", she noted.

Sally Fiddler, associate headteacher of Plant Hill, said that attendance had been a historical problem for the school.

"Plant Hill is in one of the most deprived areas of the country," she said. "This doesn't make bad attendance right but it does make it doubly hard to do the job we have to do."

As well as working more closely with families, the school invited an upcoming pop band to give badges to those with good attendance.

"We have made very big changes in work we do both in and out of school," Ms Fiddler said. "There has been a transformation and our unauthorised absence rates for the autumn term last year are much lower."

Plant Hill is due to close in August and be replaced by an academy on the same site.

However, academies also featured prominently in the top 10 schools with the worst unauthorised absence rates.

Among them was Oasis Academy Mayfield in Southampton, where 7.7 per cent of half-day sessions were missed by pupils. At the time pupil protests about the school were spiralling out of control and former head Ruth Johnson left her post after a series of disputes with pupils and staff.

Like Plant Hill, the academy has since seen a significant recent improvement in attendance, with unauthorised absence rates currently down to 3.9 per cent.

New headteacher John Toland said: "The academy operated in a challenging climate in the first six months, which is reflected in a less than satisfactory level of unauthorised absence.

"Staff, pupils and parents have worked with dedication and commitment to address the issues behind non attendance."

Education welfare officers have questioned the validity of the unauthorised absence measure. Andy Winton, president of the Association of Social Workers in Education, said: "The figures can be a complete misnomer because it's completely up to the attitude of teachers as to whether they authorise absence or not."

The Government has switched attention to statistics on persistent absenteeism - the proportion of pupils missing at least one session a week.

Persistent absenteeism has dropped, even though unauthorised absence has risen slightly since 2006. Schools minister Vernon Coaker said schools were taking a "stricter line" and "rightly no longer tolerating poor excuses and dubious reasons".

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