Bristol has one of the lowest rates of school attendance in the country. It’s a problem that has plagued the city for some time, yet despite concern from Ofsted, there was nobody leading a project on improving school attendance for almost a year.
The map below shows the overall absence rate for state-funded primary, secondary and special schools by local authority in England– 2017/18. Bristol falls into the highest bracket over and above neighbouring local authorities.
Looking at the specific percentage rates of school absence for the city during 2017/18 makes for grim reading. The table below shows the figures from the Department for Education for Bristol schools compared to the England average for 2017/18 .
The definition of ‘persistent absence’ means pupils missing 10 per cent or more of their own possible sessions due to either authorised or unauthorised absence.
In each type of school, Bristol is well above the national average, with persistent absence increasing at each stage of education. By the time children are placed in special schools, their persistent absence rate is over 40 per cent, well above the England average of 29.6.
But what is being done to tackle this and why do Bristol schools have such poor attendance? Due to the board tackling school absence closing its doors to public scrutiny, the answer is not entirely clear.
What is clear is that when it comes to school attendance and absence, special educational needs is not listed as a particular priority.
In August 2019, Bristol City Council began recruiting for an Attendance Strategy Manager, to tackle issues found in the Bristol Local Area SEND self-evaluation of June 2019. The report had found the development of an attendance strategy had been ‘slow’ which they attributed to ‘lack of resource’. The report claimed some ‘key actions’ had been taken though the ‘impact will not be evident at this time’.
Bristol Learning City (BLC) is tasked with the job of improving school attendance. It is one of the six thematic boards contributing to the Bristol One City Plan and is ‘governed by a Partnership Board of influential city leaders’. In the past, it was a public meeting which would take statements and petitions from members of the public. Now, it meets behind closed doors, with statements no longer accepted and members of the public not allowed in.
When we asked about attending a meeting, democratic services officer Claudette Campbell told us: ‘The Partnership Board is not a public meeting as it is a partnership meeting with city education partners. We will post on line the minutes of the meeting at the conclusion of the meeting.’
The minutes though scant are of interest, though it did take them five months to publish the September and November ones this year. In July 2019, BLC chair Councillor Anna Keen reported on the issue of school attendance. The report – which was not made available with the agenda or minutes – ‘confirmed’ that Bristol is ‘significantly below the national average’ and that funding had been given to support a project worker.
The minutes state that ‘It was acknowledged that schools had taken a robust approach to the issue of non-attendance but in spite of this the percentage on attendance remained almost static. Ofsted continue to question the reason(s)
behind the figure. It was therefore necessary to investigate the influences behind the issue including those difficult issues and how vulnerable groups impact the statistic.’
It carries on to say that the Bristol statistics were being ‘impacted’ by ‘diverse cultures across the city’. Keen’s report said that school heads were ‘working hard’ to make sure parents understood the ‘importance of attendance and the negative impact on education and learning’.
The new Attendance Manager Lesley O’Hagan, recruited during the summer, was only going to be working for 2/3 days, though an ‘early ask’ was made in July to increase the number of days dedicated to the role. Attendance was considered to be a ‘red light’ issue that should be ‘prioritised accordingly’. It says in the minutes that BLC believed ‘other Cities resourced the issue better and as a result had better outcomes.’
In the BLC update in September, Anna Keen reminded the board that attendance was an ‘ongoing priority’ which was of ‘some urgency’. This was because Bristol ‘remains the bottom of national league tables’.
Again, challenges were reported as ‘around families with extended family members in Europe and World-wide;
this impacted on the length of holidays taken and ultimately impacted on attendance statistics.’
The part time Attendance Manager position – now filled – was only funded part time for just six months, despite the attendance project being ‘without a lead, for almost a year’. It was agreed that funding should be made available to increase the staff hours.
The attendance issue was considered of such importance that it should also be ‘absorbed’ into the priorities of both the Excellence in Schools forum and shared with housing bodies including Bristol Homes Board. Findings showed that there are ‘proven factors that link poor accommodation to non-attendance.’
The BLP board at this point considered attendance such an issue that they felt ‘the commercial sector should be made aware of the potential negative impact on student’s going into the discipline of work, failing to understand the commitment and requirement to be in attendance daily.’
The actions to be taken after the meeting included ensuring the Attendance Manager role would be funded to extend to a permanent full-time position and the person in role would come to the next meeting to report on initial findings.
By the November 2019 meeting, attendance blame heat was moving away from ‘families with extended family members in Europe and World-wide’ and on to grieving children. A presentation from Winston’s Wish, included an overview of statistics on the number of UK children impacted by the loss of a parent or carer.
Noted from the discussion that followed was: ‘That bereaved children and families impact school attendance, the partnerships priority; they work with schools to do what they can to minimise the impact of bereavement on school attendance; and issues of safeguarding arising from a death by suicide.’
New Attendance Strategy Manager Lesley O’Hagan, later completed a presentation at the meeting, with the outcome the The Board would support the Local Authority with attendance priorities including those in the Corporate Strategy (2018-2023).
Two such difficulties lie with the Corporate Strategy. Firstly is the statement that it will ‘Improve educational outcomes and reduce educational inequality, whilst ensuring there are enough school places to meet demand and a transparent admissions process.’ This is fine for mainstream provision, but Bristol City Council does not have enough special school places, with children with Send waiting months for provision. High usage of Alternate Provision, high rates of exclusion and high levels of absence in Bristol special schools might suggest that all is not well with Send and school attendance.
The Corporate Strategy also states: ‘We have prioritised improvements in three key areas: attainment, achievement and attendance across all maintained and academy school settings.’ Except, when it comes to academy schools, Bristol’s Welfare Officer service cannot intervene with attendance problems presented by academy schools because they have their own Attendance Officer’ – This was something I was told directly over the phone by the service itself.
The November minutes confirm that Bristol remains ‘near the bottom’ of attendance statistics compared to other ‘Core Cities, its neighbours and nationally’.
So where does Send fit into school attendance? So far it hasn’t been mentioned at BLC meetings according to its published minutes. At the November meeting, Director of Education and Skills, Alison Hurley, advised that the embargoed Ofsted and Care Quality Commission Send inspection held up by the general election would be shared at the end of the pre-election period. She asked the board to ‘consider adopting the outcome as part of its leading priorities’.
It’s noted that BLC was ‘not opposed to receiving regular reports on development and support for Bristol’s SEND groups’. Minutes note that The Board was ‘strongly urged’ to consider whether all areas of its work should ‘specifically mention SEND in place of it being implied’. The outcome of this part of the meeting was to ‘work towards adopting SEND as a priority’.
Which body, forum, board or task group looks into the issue of Send and attendance is not clear. Not all groups involved with improving Bristol education publish their minutes publicly and I was told off the record that those who were selected to sit on some of these groups were considered to be “safe” people who would “not rock the boat”.
At Bristol schools’ Forum on Tuesday 26 November 2019, Trading with Schools (TwS) manager at Bristol City Council, Ali Mannering, updated the forum with its Annual Report.
The TwS Annual Report for 2018/19 revealed that its Education Welfare Service (EWS) worked on 165 poor attendance cases, 444 Pupil Tracking cases – locating children who have ‘gone missing’ from Bristol schools and 707 Children Missing Education cases – a process aiming to ensure pupils living in Bristol not registed on a school roll has access to education.
A total of 3606 Penalty Notices were issued to parents or carers of school aged children regarding their child’s irregular school attendance. A 372 s444 School Attendance Prosecutions were instigated against parents or carers for ‘failing to ensure the regular attendance of a school aged child. And, 7 School Attendance Orders were started as part of the enforcement process to make sure children or young people not on a school roll or receiving suitable Elective Home Education (EHE) were accessing education.
The report states that the EWS ‘continued to receive high volumes of Penalty Notice requests from schools’ and issued over 45 per cent more Penalty Notices in 2018/19 than the previous financial year.
All requests for new EHE are now being triaged in a partnership with the Safeguarding in Education team.
During the Schools’ Forum meeting, Mannering was questioned about the 3,600 Penalty Notices issued by TwS and what impact this had on attendance. She said that ‘attendance was a complex area and it was difficult to say if there was a direct impact’. Income taken from Penalty Notices went back into funding the administration of the service.
The Local Government Association Bristol City Council Send Review in January 2018 reported: ‘A stronger link to Bristol City’s equality agenda would also promote the SEN agenda and improve outcomes for young people with special needs and disabilities. The Education Welfare Service could be used to improve attendance for those with
SEN by targeting areas of greatest need rather than a school by school approach. This could be linked with iThrive and specialist teams.’
The Bristol Local Area SEND self-evaluation June 2019 found: ‘There is poor school attendance, high persistent absence and high levels of fixed term exclusions for children with SEND.’ It goes on to say that for children with SEN support and EHCPs, the level of attendance and exclusions is a ‘concern’. It says this is shown by the ‘high levels of persistent absence’ and ‘poor attendance’ with ‘high rates of fixed period exclusions’ also bumping up the figures.
During 2017, there were ‘very high rates’ of fixed period exclusions, totalling 33 per cent for children and young people with EHCPs – England average 16 per cent – and 26 per cent for children and young people with SEN Support – England average 15 per cent.
The fact it is ‘difficult to say if there was a direct impact’ when it comes to fining parents and carers for their child’s irregular school attendance, shows a lack of cohesion between departments and boards exacerbated by a lack of strategic lead on school attendance.
Despite school attendance being a priority for BLC, for some time, Send – according to published minutes- has never been noted as a particular cause for concern. This is despite children being unable to attend school because there are not enough special school places in Bristol. Or, children are too unwell to attend their mainstream school due to their Send not being met. It’s clear from published Bristol school absence figures that Send is a factor for children being unable to access education.
There is a real lack of public scrutiny taking place surrounding school attendance statistics, because of the closed-door nature of Bristol Learning City. Considering the board contributes to the direction of education in the city through the One City Plan, the lack of transparency is problematic. Every forum and board which contributes to education in Bristol should be open and transparent with published agendas and minutes. Reports and presentations that are given at the closed-door meetings should also be available online.
Parents and carers in Bristol find a disturbing lack of accountability when it comes to Send, school attendance and EHCPs. If there’s two words which spark a flurry of activity at Bristol City Council these days, it’s Judicial Review, and unfortunately, ones parents are likely to have to resort to for some time to come.
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