Attendance: It’s a big deal
Does your school have an attendance target? Do you know the latest weekly student attendance rate? What about the rates for each year level?
Principal Mike O'Connor makes attendance data a 'big deal' at Brisbane's Browns Plains State High School and is only too happy to shine a spotlight on student absence.
'If a school is going to have significant improvements in attendance, behaviour or whatever it is, the principal has to be right across that data. We track it, we publish it every Friday and it's at the forefront of our minds.
'At the moment it's 93.47 per cent (the target is 95 per cent) and the school has historically been running at around the 90 per cent mark,' O'Connor says without skipping a beat. 'So, the challenge that I would put is this – if you were to ring up a principal of another school and say "Hey, what's your attendance?" and if they were to say "I don't know" then that would be a worry.'
O'Connor says anecdotal evidence on the ground and detailed research in his own state highlights why getting students through the school gates must be a core priority for leaders.
'In its 2012 report Improving Student Attendance, the Queensland Audit Office found students with attendance rates of 85 per cent or less [due to unexplained reasons] are: four times more likely to be suspended or excluded; 1.5 times more likely to not finish Year 10; and 3.5 times more likely to not obtain an Overall Position (OP) 1-15.
'Performance modelling completed by DETE in Queensland for the systems’ Every Day Counts strategy compares the Queensland state school attendance rate for Semester 1, 2012 with Year 7 NAPLAN 2012 scores for reading and numeracy.
'The findings show that as attendance rates decrease, so do the NAPLAN scores for reading and numeracy. This trend between attendance rate and achievement level was found to be consistent at every year level and subject.'
Prior to taking on the leadership role at Browns Plains State High School, in Term 4 last year, O'Connor was principal at Mabel Park State High School. There, he oversaw an improvement in attendance from 77 per cent in 2009 – the lowest in an urban Queensland state high school – to 89.5 per cent in 2012.
'To achieve these gains and the subsequent learning outcomes improvement that ran parallel to this, attention was paid to three core factors: systems; attendance was made a big deal and spotlighted within the community; and pedagogy consistency and quality was addressed,' he explains.
In the area of systems, O'Connor says it's not only important to get accurate and timely data, it also needs to be published, well communicated and followed up on.
'Roles and responsibilities relating to when attendance is addressed – for example after three days' absence, first truancy offence, below a set percentage – must be crystal clear and the technology used to notify and address declining patterns must be streamlined as part of the whole school approach to positive school culture building.'
When it comes to analysing patterns, O'Connor is keen to delve further than a whole school or year level target. 'If you can see that there are patterns of kids not wanting to be in the school then you've got a problem. Or, if you can see peaks and troughs for example ... I've been here six months and we've got a problem around Monday and Friday attendance.
'Families are choosing to have parent sanctioned long weekends and we're working hard to address that through a range of strategies. Is it a Grade 8 problem? Grade 9 problem? Is it a senior problem? Is it a problem because we've got the wrong subjects on those days? There are a whole range of things that you can look at.'
Making attendance a big deal is the second core factor. 'The spotlight must be shone on the desired improvements through consistent public messages.
'The setting, attainment and celebration of public targets must be a high principal priority and the issue of whether absences are explained or not (absence is undesirable) needs to be [tackled] head on and won so that parent sanctioned absence does not blur the lines.'
An equally important aspect of this spotlight strategy is getting students to take ownership of their attendance patterns. In Term 1, O'Connor introduced a student self-attendance tracker.
'It's a very simple little equation. Every fifth week class form teachers are provided with the numbers of days absent that each student has had for the previous four weeks, then the students organise that equation [to get a percentage] and record it in their diaries.'
As he moves around school, O'Connor expects every student to be able to tell him their attendance. 'Because, if children aren't owning their own patterns, then who is? These are high school kids.
'Students must know their patterns of attendance, take responsibility for them and be sanctioned or rewarded when targets are attained or otherwise.'
Rewards include special morning teas, postcards home and prize draws.
For O'Connor, the final core factor is pedagogy. 'Students vote with their feet and if they are being dished up mundane tasks then their interest will wane,' he says bluntly. He adds that doesn't mean lessons have to be 'whizz bang, or pandering to the lowest common denominator', but the teaching does have to be engaging.
'The core of every task that is put to students must align to the pedagogical practices of the school and provide all students with access to the learning opportunity. To support this, the existence of professional learning teams who analyse, not only performance, but also intended task alignment and complexity is essential.'
Staff involved in this raft of measures include year level coordinators, class and form teachers, the deputy principal, guidance officer and attendance officer. For the principal, that has meant making some difficult budget choices.
'[The role of attendance officer didn't exist] at Mabel Park, it did here but more as an enrolment officer ... and we've modified it a bit to be more focused on attendance as well as enrolment. It's not an unusual role up here in this part of Queensland, a lot of schools have had to look to it.
'[At Mabel Park] we had to shuffle the budget and rob Peter to pay Paul unfortunately ... using existing administration officer time and cash [in] the budget to supplement that position.'
Although student attendance rates at Browns Plains State High School are heading in the right direction, O'Connor is not complacent.
Data showed that on the last day of Term 1, when the school held its cross country, attendance dipped below 80 per cent. He says one of his tasks over the next four or five years is to make sure that final day of term attendance 'keeps on creeping up and up'.
Department of Education, Training and Employment, Queensland (n.d). Research into school attendance. Retrieved from http://education.qld.gov.au/everydaycounts/schools/research-school-attendance.html
The State of Queensland. Queensland Audit Office (2012). Improving student attendance. (Publication no. ISSN 1834-1128) Retrieved from http://www.qao.qld.gov.au/files/file/Reports%202012/WebpdfofRTP1for2012.pdf
To receive a student self-attendance tracker template, or find out more about the strategies being used at Browns Plains State High School, email Principal Mike O'Connor on firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you know the attendance rate for your year group, class and school?
What strategies has your school employed to improve attendance rates and how are you monitoring their impact?