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Safeguarding absent children means giving them more ‘ways out’

By Lara Péchard, Head at St Margaret’s School in Hertfordshire 

The importance of registration and attendance some say, has supposedly been made easier by management information systems, but these can be perfunctory and in some cases the word of another child can be enough for someone to be marked present. Increasingly in our fast-paced world, absence is the first and most reliable indicator of a pastoral or safeguarding issue and consequently it deserves much more prominence and professionalism in schools.  
Regardless of the type of school or size of site it seems many schools still find the monitoring of attendance a difficult task.  Having explained at industry training days about the important steps one should take regarding pupil attendance, it was surprising to discover just how many schools struggle with the process.
All too often parents are somewhat shocked that the child they dropped off at the school gates or at the train station never actually made it in.  Systems need to be more suspicious about a possible gap between parent and school exploited by the child.  In this scenario the possibility is that the child has simply gone to a library or a coffee shop to catch up on work or is unable to face the school day. This is a common occurrence especially for a sixth former without the right routines.  Teacher comforting and safeguarding young, upset boy
However, in an age of child exploitation and County Lines, as a school, you have to be sure you know where your pupils are at all times during school hours.  Chasing absence and lateness every day with the child and family is a must.  For the child spiraling into depression, going into school might be too much for them.  Schools need to know how to identify these children and the correlation with their attendance patterns.  A chill out zone or welfare area; open and non-judgmental might make the difference in holding them safely.  
Often when a child has a high rate of lateness or absence you can find colleagues too easily accepting of plausible reasons for absence, as a pastoral need. For example, citing a parental health issue as a reason for a boy regularly missing school is one that springs to mind.   In this scenario, at best the child is at home with a parent undertaking schoolwork, but in this case he was sleeping off a drug dependency and needed the school to lean in rather than respect his distance.  
It can be uncomfortable trying to encourage parents to get their children into school.  Avoiding school is difficult for the entire household.  Of course there are often very legitimate reasons to keep children at home and away from school. However, the instinct should be to get them into school to provide support, especially when offered as a package of care for the child and family.  Often a parent, especially those who can work from home can be weak and an unhealthy pattern can take hold.  A child that is consistently off school for one reason can quickly develop other issues that are very difficult for families to unpick.  In truth, there are many more desperate situations where the school is trying to reach the inadvertently ‘boxed-out’ child with friendly visits from a tutor, classmates or chaplain.  
Schools need robust attendance systems that allow for multiple registration points, communication with home and that are easy for staff to get right. Secondly, schools should allocate a dedicated member of staff to check and follow up absences with personal communication. 
Schools need to be safe places with suitable space to ‘zone out’ for the traumatised, unhappy or bereaved.  Giving children more ways out, so that coming into school can be managed even if homework isn’t completed, has to be where schools focus their attention.  

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