As its name might suggest, Plant Hill Arts College is surrounded by grass and leafy trees. It sits opposite the open spaces of Plant Hill Park in Blackley, just north of Manchester city centre. But behind the foliage, the 1960s- style school building looks a bit worse for wear and could do with a lick of paint. Over the past few years, staff and pupils have been looking out of the school windows at a new pound;23 million academy being erected, only metres away from where they sit.
Arguably, a new start will be just what the college needs. When the government attendance figures came out in January, Plant Hill was ranked joint worst in the country. It is being monitored by Ofsted and, between September 2008 and Easter 2009, more than one in four pupils regularly missed lessons. However, the school has been making steady progress since then.
"We have improved our attendance this year because we are addressing lots of issues that have been recognised by the inspectors. So we are not focusing on last year," explains Sandy Fiddler, associate head. "We are focusing on this year - the changes that we have made, the successes that we are having and the improvements that we have made."
Attendance so far has increased by 3.5 per cent overall, rising across all year groups. Current attendance has risen to 85.6 per cent compared with 82.4 per cent at the same time last year.
The school's most recent Ofsted inspection credited "a significant and continuing effort" by the school staff for the improvements. "A strategic approach, using a range of teaching and non-teaching personnel, together with a sharply targeted approach on individual students and families, has secured increased attendance in all year groups," the report says.
The future looks brighter for Plant Hill, but it is far from the only school that has had problems with attendance. While overall absence is down, the national rate of unauthorised absence rose from 0.7 per cent in 1997 to 1.05 per cent this year, despite the Government spending more than pound;1 billion on anti-truancy initiatives since they came to power in 1997.
Schools minister Vernon Coaker puts the recent rise in truancy down to schools taking a "stricter line" on what they consider to be "authorised" attendance. "Schools are rightly no longer tolerating poor excuses and dubious reasons," he says. But the figures confirm what many teachers and attendance experts have said for a long time: failing to attend school is the symptom of a broad range of problems that many schools and the Government have so far failed to grasp.
Professor Ken Reid, who conducted the National Behaviour and Attendance Review (NBAR) in Welsh schools, is under no illusion about what these figures show. "There has been no sustainable improvement over the past 40 years," he says. "If anything, things are getting worse."
At Plant Hill, where many pupils start school with very basic levels of literacy and other skills, the problems with attendance are being considered as part of a whole-school drive to raise school standards. A new headteacher was appointed last September and stringent behaviour policies are being enforced, all of which have helped to improve attendance. Five members of staff left the school last September, which had a negative impact on pupil and staff morale, according to Ofsted. However, this hasn't deterred Ms Fiddler and the rest of the team.
"There are lots of dedicated staff who want pupils to do well and succeed and have aspirations," she says.
While social disadvantage isn't always an indicator of low attendance, there are links between the two. In Greater Manchester, parts of which have higher-than-average social deprivation, the rate of persistent absenteeism is almost treble the national average: more than one in 10 Manchester pupils are persistent truants, while the national average is just over one in 30.
The most recent attendance figures suggest that a core group of pupils are increasingly disengaged and are bunking off more than in previous years. Overall, this year's group of persistent absentees might be slightly smaller than last year. But those pupils who are persistently absent missed more unauthorised half-days than they did the year before: in secondary schools this group missed 13.7 per cent of half days in the 2007-08 academic year; in 2008-09 persistent absentees missed 14.1 per cent of half days. And truancy is starting even earlier. The number of unauthorised half-days missed by primary school pupils who were persistent absentees has also risen from 8.5 per cent in 2007-08 to 8.8 per cent in 2008-09.
Plant Hill has broadened the range of vocational options to appeal to those pupils who haven't had much success with the national curriculum, and Ms Fiddler is in no doubt that this has made school more appealing and lies behind the recent rise in attendance figures. Pupils tell teachers what industries they would like to know more about and the school does its best to accommodate.
There is currently a group doing the level 2 Diploma in engineering and the new co-operative academy will be able to set up even more business links to help pupils. The school also works with off-site support agencies such as the Lighthouse Group, which provides numeracy and literacy support for a few days a week, but in an alternative school environment.
"When those students come back to school, they are energised and they participate," says Ms Fiddler. "Their attitude to school is much more positive."
Rathbone, a charity that supports teenagers who have opted out of school, argues that there isn't enough in the curriculum for pupils who enjoy and excel at practical subjects. "Often, pupils tell me (their attendance problem) is about them not liking the educational environment that they are in," says Peter Gibson from Rathbone.
"They are not particularly academic and don't do well at school. They appear to be brash and cocky, but that can often be masking low self- esteem and lack of confidence." The charity provides vocational activities and work placements for its young people, many of whom go into employment or further education.
The focus on academic qualifications is something that Professor Reid also blames for poor attendance. "In 1969, it was almost unheard of to have any truants in primary school, whereas now, 36 per cent of all truants begin their history of truancy in primary school," he says. "Why has it got worse? We have got rid of all vocational subjects - turning all pupils into academics. We don't put a value on learning skills. There is no emphasis on semi-skilled jobs."
Aside from what is being taught in lessons, pupils' personal circumstances have a huge part to play in whether they are inclined to attend school. No matter how schools try to cater for their pupils, family dynamics and parental support are crucial.
"I think what's happening is that there is more good practice going on in schools and local authorities than ever before, but there are more potential (truants) all the time," says Professor Reid, who believes the recent rise in unauthorised absence, particularly in primary schools, is down to family breakdown. "The fact is that many children are having to deal with societal and family disintegration," he says. "All the evidence over the past 50 years is that truants come from insecure home backgrounds."
Getting parents on board was identified as key to getting pupils into school at Plant Hill. An attendance officer was appointed around this time last year to oversee the school's attendance figures and deal with any legal issues, but a main part of the job is organising home visits, as parents' attitudes have consistently been proven to be the defining factor in pupils' attendance.
"Some of the parents don't have the best experiences of school themselves - perhaps they went to a school where they were shouted at or didn't get on well, and that became a barrier for them, and that barrier needs to be broken down," says Ms Fiddler.
The school staff now host coffee mornings for parents, "so that they can have a pleasant experience at school", says Ms Fiddler, and there are also meetings between parents and other agencies involved in their children's care - educational psychologists or the school nurse, for example. Pupils now get dedicated time during the school week for support in these areas.
The Government has taken a hard line on parents whose children are persistently absent. Schools and local authorities have a range of actions available to them, from parenting orders to prosecution, and parents can face fines of up to pound;3,000 or a three-month custodial sentence. In February, a mother in Brighton was the first to be sentenced to a three- month curfew for letting her two children play truant. She has to wear an electronic tag to make sure she's at home between 8pm and 7am.
Of course, it's not just disengaged parents and pupils who cause the problems - often the problem is that parents don't realise attendance is that important. This was definitely an issue at Plant Hill before staff sent home guidelines about what reasons would be authorised by teachers. It was also a huge factor in attendance levels at St Neots School in Cambridgeshire. Rob Page, pastoral deputy head, joined the school in March last year after it was identified as having too many persistent truants.
To start with, staff spent a lot of time getting the message across that reasons such as "waiting for a washing machine delivery" weren't acceptable. "We knew that parents would keep their child home if it was their birthday or even if they just had a very slight sniffle," says Mr Page. "Parents forget that their child had one day off on September 14, another one on November 12 and another on December 6, and all these days start to add up."
He compiled graphs for pupils and parents showing the correlation between good attendance and high attainment, and this has gone a long way towards changing the school culture - no parent wants to see their child put at a disadvantage for something so mundane.
"Ninety per cent attendance sounds pretty good. If you got that in a test, you would be really pleased," says Mr Page. "But that means that you miss 19 school days a year. If you did that over 10 years of school, you would effectively miss a whole year of school. So when you sit your exams in Year 11, and the bloke next to you has 99 per cent or 100 per cent attendance, he has actually been at school a whole year longer than you."
No matter how dedicated parents are to their children's attendance at school, this is only half the battle, especially when it comes to teenagers. In an attempt to deal with those pupils at St Neots who head out the door in their school uniform but never reach the school gates, the school has also started to use an automatic telephone system, Truancy Call, which notifies parents immediately if a pupil doesn't show up at school and asks them to provide a reason.
A report on the history of truancy by Nicola Sheldon, from the Institute of Historical Research, found that local culture, whether in the pupils' neighbourhood, family or school, has a critical and lasting impact on attendance. If the local culture has a negative attitude to attendance, this influence is very powerful and difficult to change. So schools face a further challenge in trying to sway the local culture, as well as family attitudes, to being supportive of attending school.
While a good old-fashioned reward system might not get to the heart of the problem, it gives pupils an incentive to attend school. It certainly worked for Royal Mail, which claims its employee attendance figures rose by 10 per cent following the introduction of a reward scheme in 2004 in which employees with good attendance were entered into a draw to win new cars and pound;2,000 holiday vouchers. But could it work for schoolchildren?
At St Neots School, rewards have been integral to anti-truancy measures and classes get rewarded with a box of chocolates for 100 per cent attendance. These rewards have changed the school culture: it's less acceptable to "bunk off" because you're letting down the team.
"When somebody says they are feeling poorly, the other students say: `You have got to be in tomorrow or we might miss out on the chocolates next week.' It's about house camaraderie and it's about giving them an incentive," says Mr Page.
"When we are giving out the chocolates, you can see the look of despair on the other pupils' faces when they think they're not going to get any."
Rewards have also been a key feature of Plant Hill's crackdown on attendance. Pupils build up merits throughout the week and exchange them for prizes on the school premises: 10 merits can get you a football, 60 merits gets a DVD and 100 merits can get a pupil a pair of hair straighteners. There are also longer term rewards for best attendance and behaviour.
"Most recently we had four children go out and watch Lady Gaga and Dizzee Rascal," says Ms Fiddler. "We have had another four go to The X Factor and another four go to watch Pink. Every half term, we have something positive for those children."
Despite the label of being one of the worst schools in the country for attendance, the word "truancy" isn't heard very often in the corridors of Plant Hill.
"I don't like that term. Our kids don't necessarily play truant - many of them don't attend because they have problems in other areas of their life," says Ms Fiddler.
Trying to get that core group of persistent truants to attend school has long been a problem throughout the UK and it's the diverse range of causes that have made it difficult to address. But while government policy hasn't necessarily been very successful, individual schools are taking matters into their own hands and realising the lengths they need to go to in order to get those hard-to-reach, disengaged pupils into school.
A new school building is by no means a quick fix. But in Blackley, the new Manchester Co-operative Academy is a visual confirmation of the work that is already being done in the school and with the local community.
"The pupils are all really excited about it - the current school just isn't a nice environment to be in," says Ms Fiddler, who thinks the new building will be a further incentive for pupils to attend. "We are not there yet, and we don't claim to be. But we are getting there."
Truancy in figures
pound;1bn spending on anti-truancy initiatives since 1997
0.7%1.05% rise in truancy rate since 1997
Sandy Fiddler's top tips for tackling truancy
- First and foremost, high-quality teaching and learning are essential to boost attendance.
- Early intervention for pupils or families known to the school - these families can be identified through historical data.
- Break down barriers between schools and families and be supportive but also be firm and structured in your approach.
- Reward good attendance within school and celebrate successes.
- Have a whole-school approach to tackling attendance.
- Establish high expectations of pupils from the outset to achieve good attendance and sustain it.
- Link attendance to achievement at key stage 4: if you are in school, you are likely to achieve higher grades.
- Dedicate a day or two for a "blitz". This involves knocking on parents' doors to find out why pupils are not in school or going to the city centre to talk to parents whose children aren't at school.
- Work with the local authority and their attendance team on blitz days. They can, along with the police, bring pupils back to school.
- 10 merits: a football
- 60 merits: a DVD
- 100 merits: hair straighteners.