How Doncaster can reverse high school absences

Working with parents outside school and making sure different types of schooling are available are key to reversing Doncaster’s high rate of pupils absences.

Thursday, 11th April 2019, 7:22 am
Updated Tuesday, 14th May 2019, 6:11 pm

Those are the views of the panel at the latest Doncaster Free Press round table, this time looking at at school attendance and exclusions..

Our panel was Karen Fagg, headteacher, Park Primary, Intake; Jamie McMahon, regional director of post 16 education for Delta Academies Trust; Helen Redford-Hernandez, headteacher, Hungerhill Academy, Dr Nicola Crossley director of inclusion; Astrea Academies Trust; Gwynn ap Harri, chief executive, XP Schools Trust, Paul Ruane, Doncaster Council head of service for learning provision, Martyn Owen, Doncaster Council head of service for inclusion; Leanne Hornsby, Doncaster Council assistant director commissioning and business development.Sam Twiselton, vice chairman of Doncaster Opportunity Area Board, Damien Allen, Doncaster Council director of children’s services, Saul Farrell, Doncaster Council strategy and performance manager. Free Press community engagement editor David Kessen chaired.

What can be done to reduce the number of pupils missing lessons in Doncaster?

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L-r Leanne Hornsby, DMBC Assistant Director, Education, Commissioning and Business Development, Martyn Owen, Head of service for inclusion at Doncaster MBC, Sam Twiselton, deputy chair of Doncaster opportunity area social mobility programme, Helen Redford-Hernandez, Headteacher at Hungerhill School, Jamie McMahon, Regional Director of Delta Academies Trust, Gwyn ap Harri, CEO XP School Trust, Damian Allen, Director of People (DCS/DASS) at Doncaster MBC, Saul Farrell, DMBC senior strategy performance manager, Karen Fagg, Headteacher at Park Primary School, Paul Ruane, Head of Learning at Doncaster MBC, Dr. Nicola Crossley, Executive Director of Inclusion at Astrea Academy Trust and David Kessen, Doncaster Free Press. Picture: NDFP-09-04-19-RoundTable-7

Helen Redford-Hernandez: “I want children to come to school and enjoy lessons and curriculum design is central to that. I think we need to look at diversity of provision, not just in our own schools but in the wider context and that's why I’ve been an advocate for the Doncaster University Technology College, because that will provide some of our students with a very different type of learning experience. I did a review a few years back now, at XP, and was very impressed by the bespoke curriculum and high levels of engagement, so I think for me, its a bit of a broader question around school organisation and not just what individual schools are doing to improve attendance.

Dr Nicola Crossley: “Coming at it from an inclusion perspective, in particular children with special education needs and disabilties, its absolutely about the curriculum being fit for purpose. Figures for attendance are often the red flags in terms of what is not quite right in terms of the provision for that individual child. What we’re also seeing across Doncaster is that correlation between low attendance and high exclusions, particularly vulnerable groups and so its a holistic approach that needs to be looked at in terms of how fit for purpose the curriculum is. Are they voting with their feet? What we often do is pitch to the middle and hope that everyone can catch it at either side.

Jamie McMahon: “One of the things we spend a huge amount of time focusing on is engaging lesson so we can build support processes to reflect that. We have looked to not just teach the middle, but create bespoke lessons in an engaging way so students participate..We’ve seen an effect on attendance at all our schools. The students now want to learn and are doing it in a way they want to engage with.”

NC: I think its motivating the students as well and being able to identify those who are not attending, and going into the finer detail about which type of children have trends for not attending. By doing that we can perhaps unpick what it is, the context or environment, that is preventing them from attending.

Damien Allen: As a council, we committed to an inclusive growth strategy across the borough and for an inclusive society you need inclusive education, You’ve also got to understand the need outside the school and the context and circumstances in which families live. You need to have expectations that parents have legal responsibilities in terms of children attending school and ensuring that they conform to the school’s ethos.It needs to be engaging, the right sort of curriculum to meet the national expectations of outcomes, but also have something in it for them that points to their future, and that’s important at secondary. At primary we’re dealing with some of the fundamental issues that arise out of child development and insufficient parenting that can lead to experiences that contribute to subsequent challenges later in school, so we do need to take a holistic approach that includes parents and the wider community. We need to be clear about what the wider community’s needs and aspirations are as well.”

JM: One of the great things that the secondaries have done this year, as a group of schools, is set a consistent approach to attendance, that sends a consistent message to parents as to what their expectations are. They are then not able to play schools off against each other as they are coming across with the same message.

DA: That partnership approach is the way to deal with a whole system challenge like attendance, which is a proxy for a lot of other things, and the local authority has brought some power to that conversation around an attendance strategy. Our position has gone up from 147th of 152 authorities, to 141. It’s a modest improvement, but its an indicator of that whole system effect that Jamie was talking about.

NC: These things take time. It may be a modest improvement but we have to have the courage to say this looks like its working lets keep going and I think that quite often we throw in strategies and are too quick to change and we don’t take the time to embed. We have to say this is showing signs of working.

DA: One of the key elements in the joint attendance strategy is taking a targeted approach, focusing the most resources and efforts on area of greatest need. That does bring improvement across the whole system, and that doesn’t happen quickly, and does involve engagement. It also started to yield other issues that we perhaps were not so aware of in terms of contributory factors to do with attendance, not just looking at all pupils but looking at those with particular vulnerabilities, be that looked-after children or children with special education needs, young carers, children with English as additional language, and you start to see where the challenges are. That better informs a more inclusive approach. Additionally we’re seeing reducing budgets and stretching resources across that often quite diverse needs means making some quite difficult choices. We have to meet the need locally and I think we’re starting to see some effects both in attendance and also in terms of behaviour.

DA: With the Department for Education social mobility opportunity area, we did an assessment of need, finding were social mobility cold spots were, and then agreed a plan agree addressing four key areas – primary outcomes, secondary, the world beyond the school, and the fourth, critically, is the overall experience of children and to add value to that is the development of essential life skills. Those are the skills that get you on in life that as a member of society or in terms of progression in the world of work and that means outside the school experience as well in different communities and different groups of children. Part of that the programme is promoting meaningful experience. That could be in the world of work or the world outside of school, and through school so that the cultural, sport and social offer, the social offer are enhanced. Schools cannot do all of that alone and that is why we need that place approach that an opportunity area provides.

HR-H: If I profile my pupil premium students, they are often among the lowest attaining, they have complex needs, and have poor levels of literacy. If you take it as a case study, what I will be advocating when we create our multi-academy trust in September, is looking at how we develop a text-led curriculum, because we feel that is something we can change, that’s within our remit. We need to be aspirational about that and need to make sure all subjects are using texts to develop comprehension and reading. I think the challenge is how you create diversity and diverse experience within a curriculum that has become narrower and narrower and that’s almost out of our remit because all heads at the moment are cutting some significant subjects including technology. I’ve heard of some schools cutting music and drama, creative subjects that these children can engage in and can develop lifelong skills. What we’re having to do is to invest in more history and geography teachers, and science and maths and English. While I’m not saying that‘s not a good thing to do for many of our students, I’m also aware for some that’s not appropriate. At the moment I don’t think we’ve got the balance. That’s not down to individual schools designing it that way, its about funding and accountability and how we are judged. My school is very inclusive, we’ve only done two permanent exclusions since 2012. We’ve taken in a lot of permanent exclusions from other schools, we’ve got 29 healhcare plans, the highest number in Doncaster, I’ve got 19 looked after children. I don’t have the highest progress score in Doncaster, but I would like recognition for the inclusivity of my school and I think that’s really important. Until that’s given I think heads will focus on the wrong things.

JM: On the one hand, the Government has given us flexibilty to design the curriculum in any way we want to, but on the other hand the ability to judge us completely if they do and those two things are a juxtapostion which does not give you the flexibility to avoid square pegs in round holes. It’s not just in secondary. If you look at key stage two sats there’s not a lot of creativity taking pace because you’re focusing on maths, English, reading and writing, drilling down to a point where the engagement in education at that point ,when they should be really in the throes of enjoying it, is narrowed so much, so that when they come on to secondary, its just getting narrower and narrower.

NC: Having the reach and breadth of schools that we have in the trust has allowed us to develop something called the Estrea Promise, which is a commitment to children to have life experiences beyond the academic curriculum . We started that in early years and we’re developing it into secondary and the moment. Its been embedded for the last 18 months. Children and parents are sharing those experiences that’s a recognition that there is more than the academic.

DA: Government formal league tables don’t recognise that sort of achievement. As one of the outcomes of the Education and Skills commission in 2016, one of the proposals was to create a 100 things to do before you're 11 and we are just about to launch that to grow that habit in young people. All these things are things to do in Doncaster, so that will get people out there. Quite often people know more about what’s going on on the telly than they do about the wider place.

KF: I think that leads in to role of parents and communities. It’s all very well looking at our curriculums and the opportunities we’re offering, we’ve really got to engage with families, and encourage them work with us. We describe our children as experience deprived because they don’t go beyond the local area. We’ve got a lot of work to do to empower and support parents, and have some very difficult conversations with some of them to move forward and develop this.

JM: We looked at the destinations of students in year 11 and 13 at some schools compared to others. If there is an outward focus the universities might be Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, London, whereas for others its Sheffield Hallam of Leeds Beckett, so they stay within a close proximity. We need to get the parents involved, and the curriclum and the 100 things to do. To look at Doncaster is a great thing, but we still need to be taking them across the Sheffield city region and beyond.

KF: We want them to go and and see that, but for some of them to come back to Doncaster.

DA: We do, that that’s a really important point. We want these people to contribute to Doncaster as well. That whole thing about 101 things to do before you’re 11 is it’s with your parents so you children become a reason for going out and doing things positively and you can enjoy their childhood and their upbringing. We do know there are challenges and trends in the communities and we can work with parents and communities to provide support.

“One of the things we need to do is develop an equivalent out of school but linked to school programme for secondary as well, linked to programmes like the national citizens service as well.

Gwynn ap Harri: “At XP with attendance we do a lot around curriculum, but with us attendance is the most important thing. We have a narrative for success which is ‘every day at school matters’ – come to school, work hard, be kind, and you’ll achieve academically, grow as a person, and become the best version of you. We assess them against those things. Our main intervention is attendance. Our second one is habits over work and learning. Schools often put a lot of work into academic interventions which are sometimes just too late. But every teacher knows if a kids working hard in from of them so we gear our interventions around that. And the link between home and school is the biggest indicator of success. We have a pastoral scheme called crew which has one adult with 12 children. That adult knows the kids extremely well and knows the parents extremely well, so you can intervene in terms of attendance really quickly. We have a system we call deposits and withdrawals. If a child is modelling behaviour we ring the parent to tell them the child has done something very well, and that is a ‘deposit’. When you have to make that difficult phone call, for a ‘withdrawal’, you have the trust of the parent.