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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

Attendance: A Sisyphean Endeavour for School Leaders

A Crisis of Complexity

Working in, and leading, schools is complex for many reasons. It always has been, but there is a strong argument that it has now become even more complex, shrugging off the cloak of simplicity that it has (perhaps too often) presented to the outside world. At this moment, everyone knows that school leadership is an often grimly complex role and perhaps nowhere is this understood better than with regards to attendance or, as the media would prefer to have it, the 'attendance crisis'. What is really striking about the coverage of this 'attendance crisis' is that very few commentators appear to be taking the angle that there are easy solutions. This is unusual and stands in stark contrast, for example, to the response to the findings of the coroner about Ruth Perry and Ofsted. Everyone appears to realise that getting kids into school at pre-pandemic levels is far from simple, and school leaders should take some heart from the implied empathy or sympathy of this unusually nuanced position.

Sisyphean Endeavour

I say that they 'should' take some heart but, of course, we know that that is rarely the case for professionals who are used to having their work simplified by those who once went to a school or who have children of their own. Equally importantly, school leaders and staff can be their own worst enemies on this score: school staff are predominantly glass-half-full people in pursuit of a perfection in their work that they recognise is unattainable with so many moving parts in human form. A significant consequence of such robust self-scrutiny - and our concomitant belief in the 'March of Progress' of continuous school improvement - is that, when times are tough and the chips are down, it feels as if it is we are failing, not the system as a whole. Not only are we like Sisyphus, doomed to spend each day rolling the attendance ball up the hill, but we are unforgiving of ourselves and others when we find that the ball has returned from whence it came.


I recently attended a webinar in which Marc Rowland cautioned those of us online against catastrophising around our work on attendance. I think, based on my conversations with school leaders and staff, that he has a point. Simple problems require simple solutions and, when things go wrong, it is easy to know where to point the finger. Complex problems are, however, another matter. Pupil attendance is undoubtedly a complex matter. And because it is continuing to go wrong (at present absence rates nationally are at 7% and persistent absenteeism remains north of 20%), it is startlingly easy to point fingers in multiple different directions and, particularly, for our own fingers to be pointed back at ourselves.

Punitive Posturing

This tendency to want to simplify and point out faults is natural - literally, it is how the brain makes complexity bearable - but it isn't particularly helpful, especially when the issues are not just complex, but are persistently complex for a long period of time. Where this catastrophising leads us is into an ever more sanction-driven approach, increasing the threats to families, children, colleagues and ourselves in the hope that higher level negative consequences will make the difference and get that attendance boulder over the lip of the mountain so we can stop for a while. This is happening in schools and it is being modelled by government in their ratcheting up of attendance sanctions for families, even though pretty much every piece of research on the matter says that this is likely to be counterproductive to improved attendance.

Impaired Perspective

Where all of this leads us is to a place where we are in danger of losing perspective and balance in how we see people, and see ourselves in relation to them. On the example of increasing fines for families (in number and amount), we know that it will most negatively impact those with the least resources. We also know that it will drive children who are reluctant, at best, and hostile, at worst, into our classrooms and corridors. And we know that we will hold all of the guilt and shame of enforcing these fines as a solution that we know is unlikely to address the problem in most circumstances. Cue yet more finger pointing at people (including ourselves) who we see to blame but don't see to recognise.

Belonging Bereavement

The net result of all of this, being reported up and down the country, is a sense that the binds that tie us are unravelling, fraying, reaching breaking point. The talk is of the social contract being broken and this complex situation becomes collapsed into mutual, and mutually reinforcing, finger wagging as well as finger pointing: parents don't care, schools don't educate, teachers are despots. And, all the while, each one of the players in the game feels a little less sense of belonging. And when one feels like one doesn't belong, one leaves the game altogether (physically or mentally). Parents elect to home educate, regardless of their capacity to do so. Children choose to internally truant, in spite of the impact on their education and well-being. School staff decide to leave, despite the fact that education means so much to them (perhaps because of it).

Rays of Hope

The longer this post has gone on, the more it has felt like a counsel of despair. I suppose that it is. Let's be honest with ourselves, very few people are optimistic about attendance at the moment. And yet there are some faint rays of sunshine. Nationally the figures are awful, but they are less awful than last year, which were less awful than the year before. Sisyphus' rock isn't returning quite back to where it was and, whilst the gains are in inches, they are gains. They are the product of massive investment of time, energy, resources, and care. We should celebrate them and try to push the phrase "pre-pandemic levels" to the backs of our minds. And, of course, marginal gains across a country (our schools are currently 0.3% better attended than in 2022/23) actually translate to improvements in the attendance of a massive number of children across the country. Sometimes taking the big picture obscures the marginal gains.

Basking in the Glow

And it is these rays of hope, at school and student level, that require our attention. Recent research is clear that positive messages trump negative ones on attendance, and that, in a fair fight, what drives children to come to school far outweighs what forces them to come in or what forces them to stay away. Hope, it turns out, is more powerful than either cynicism or fear. But in times where good news is in short supply, in times of crisis, hope can feel like a radical act. Actually, hope is a radical act. Unlike optimism, it isn't blind to the challenges of what is. Unlike belief, it isn't blind to what else might be. Hope, I rather hope, is just what we need to help us cope with the complexity of the task facing us on attendance.

Mind Your Head

If you're struggling to find hope in your work (on attendance or otherwise) as a school leader at present, you're not alone and you don't need to deal with it alone. There are many organisations that can help you, including this one. If you want to know more, check out the other pages of this sight on reflective supervision. Or, if you want to talk about how else I could support you, fill out one of the forms (or send me a DM on X @kevbartle) and I'll get back to you promptly.

And, if you want to know more about recent research on attendance and what it tells us, I'll be talking about it in May as part of my work for SSAT.


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