Report on Improving Pupil Attendance: Follow-Up Report
Committee: Public Accounts
Date: Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Reference: NIA 181/11-15
Mandate Report Number: Mandate 2011/15 - Twenty third report
Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions
The Public Accounts Committee is a Standing Committee established in accordance with Standing Orders under Section 60(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is the statutory function of the Public Accounts Committee to consider the accounts, and reports on accounts laid before the Assembly.
The Public Accounts Committee is appointed under Assembly Standing Order No. 56 of the Standing Orders for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has the power to send for persons, papers and records and to report from time to time. Neither the Chairperson nor Deputy Chairperson of the Committee shall be a member of the same political party as the Minister of Finance and Personnel or of any junior minister appointed to the Department of Finance and Personnel.
The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.
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1. Pupil attendance and educational achievement are inextricably linked and it is vital, therefore, that the education system does all that it can to ensure that children attend school regularly to make the most of their time in compulsory education. Those children who do not attend school regularly are effectively forfeiting the value of their education.
2. Overall, pupil attendance has improved marginally since statistics were first collected in 2007-08; however, it is concerning that the level of unauthorised absence has increased from 27 per cent in 2007-08 to 33 per cent in 2011-12 and is double that reported in England. The annual cost of this lost education is estimated to be in the region of £22 million.
3. The Committee is concerned that the absence levels reported for some of the most vulnerable groups of young people (including pupils from a socially deprived background, Traveller Children and Looked After Children) are much higher than the average. As the Accounting Officer acknowledged, the greatest empowerment tool out of poverty is investing in education. The Department must, therefore, do all it can to ensure that all children attend school regularly.
4. While the Department has taken a number of steps to improve pupil attendance over the last ten years, it is disappointing that it has not made more progress in implementing the recommendations in the Audit Office’s 2004 report. In particular, the Department still has not developed or implemented an overall attendance strategy. While the Committee accepts that there is no ‘magic bullet’ to resolve the issue, the development of a coherent strategy is a necessary starting point and should be progressed urgently.
5. The Committee is not convinced that the Department has got to grips with the most deep-rooted issues, such as social disadvantage and unauthorised absence. It is important that poverty is not used as an excuse for underachievement and poor attendance at school. The Department’s strategy must consider how best to address the specific challenges relating to the most vulnerable groups.
6. Strong leadership is crucial in improving standards in a school. The Committee finds it unacceptable that, in its last biennial report, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI)identified the need to improve the quality of leadership in 22 per cent of primary and 39 per cent of post-primary schools inspected. The Department has to take the lead in supporting and promoting strong leadership in schools. Developing the right skills, identifying role models and building support networks will be key in achieving excellence.
7. While schools have a responsibility to promote and encourage attendance, parents have a legal duty to ensure that their children attend school regularly and it is the parents who effectively forfeit the value of their child’s education if they do not ensure they attend. It is vital, therefore, that the Department does all it can to engage with disaffected parents and the local community to raise awareness of the value of education and ensure that all vulnerable children have access to the same opportunities. The ETI can play a role in monitoring parental and community engagement during its inspections.
8. The Committee is aware that there is already a plethora of good practice in our schools and that some schools have managed to overcome the problems associated with non-attendance, despite challenging circumstances. It is disappointing, however, that such examples are very much driven by individual schools. It is vital that the Department translates the identification and dissemination of good practice into a coherent plan so that all schools can share expertise in a structured way. The ETI is in an ideal position to identify and advocate good practice on two levels - by producing thematic reports on pupil attendance and by embedding attendance issues more into its individual school inspections.
9. The Education Welfare Service (EWS) is a specialist education support service which seeks to help young people of compulsory school age and their families get the best out of the education system. A school can refer a pupil to the EWS when a pupil’s attendance is cause for concern or when attendance drops below 85 per cent. The service is provided by the Education and Library Boards and it employs 134 Education Welfare Officers at a cost of £8.8 million each year.
10. Despite this substantial investment, the Committee considers it completely unacceptable that the EWS would discourage schools from making referrals. It is vitally important that schools have the freedom to refer all cases which give cause for concern and, in their view, require intervention. Without this freedom there is a risk that the education system could be failing the most vulnerable pupils.
11. The Committee is not convinced that the EWS is on top of the problem of non-attendance and appears to be too reactive. It lacks the basic management information necessary to monitor attendance on a real time basis and to take pre-emptive action with vulnerable children. The fact that 16,000 pupils a year miss almost 6 weeks of school, yet are not known to the EWS, is extremely disconcerting. This must be a priority for action.
12. It is clear that tackling the problem of non-attendance, and in particular persistent non-attendance, is highly complex and in certain cases it may be necessary to involve a wide range of stakeholders. Whilst the school could take action against, and offer support for, the pupil, if family issues are not addressed poor attendance patterns would almost inevitably reoccur. Non-attendance is representative of wider socio-economic problems and the Department and the schools sector cannot be expected to resolve such issues on their own.
13. There must be greater collaboration between school leaders, Education Welfare Officers, District Inspectors, Neighbourhood Renewal and Sure Start initiatives in order to break the cycle of trans-generational issues. People are disadvantaged, not areas, and families should not be precluded from help because of where they live.
15. It is important, therefore, that the Department’s attendance strategy addresses the issue of non-attendance at primary and post primary school in a holistic and joined up manner. In order to do this, the Committee expects to see a collaborative strategy which includes other relevant departments and agencies, particularly in areas such as social services, social development and youth justice.
Summary of Recommendations
The Committee recommends that the Department should develop and implement an Attendance Strategy, which includes an action plan, within 6 to 12 months. It further recommends that the Department considers the following issues as part of its strategic response:
- targeting the absence of vulnerable groups, for example, socially disadvantaged pupils;
- the need to have different approaches and interventions for different stages of the 12 years of compulsory education;
- a differentiation in response between those children who have frequent, short absences and children who have long term absences from school; and
- early intervention and prevention.
The Committee recommends that the Department should consider how it can ensure that initiatives such as the Extended Schools Programme provide the same opportunity for all vulnerable children. It should also encourage all schools to actively engage with parents and the community. The level of engagement should be considered by the ETI during its inspections.
The ETI is in an ideal position to identify and advocate good practice but has not produced any reports or guidance in this area recently. Given that the Education Inspectorates in England and Wales have produced thematic reports on pupil attendance in the last two years, the Committee recommends that the ETI in Northern Ireland should adopt a more strategic approach.
The Committee recommends that the ETI should also have a key role in disseminating good practice ‘on the ground’ as its inspectors are in the unique position of visiting a variety of schools. The ETI should embed the issue of attendance further into its inspection process so that District Inspectors are alert to, and share examples of, innovative and effective attendance management strategies with those schools which have attendance issues.
The Committee recommends that the Department should develop a structured strategic approach to disseminating good practice amongst schools, in order to encourage them to collaborate and share expertise as a cost effective way of improving attendance. One approach is to pair schools with poor attendance with other schools which have turned attendance problems around, so that they can share experiences. Another option for sharing good practice on attendance issues is through existing sub-groups of Area Learning Communities. The mechanisms for dissemination must, however, be planned and not left to the initiative of individual schools.
The Committee recommends that a fundamental review of the EWS should be carried out, with the ultimate aim that schools should refer all cases where intervention is considered necessary and after the school has endeavoured to resolve the attendance issue itself. Although this is likely to result in an increase in demand for the EWS, and potentially contribute to an increase in waiting lists, it is essential that the Department has an opportunity to analyse the real level of demand for the service and consider how best to resource it. The re-engineered EWS should be more proactive, carry out more preventative work, act with more urgency and should put in place a mechanism to ensure that all pupils requiring intervention are identified at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Committee recommends that the remit of the review should include urgent measures to address the current lack of basic management information available to EWS and inconsistent service provision across the five Education and Library Boards (ELBs), as these failings prevent the EWS from doing its job effectively.
The Committee strongly recommends that the Department should adopt a more cohesive and joined up approach in addressing the issues associated with non-attendance. In developing an attendance strategy (see Recommendation 1) the Department should set out how it will work with other relevant agencies in order to generate a wider societal approach to pupil attendance in primary and post-primary schools.
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