Approaches to improving school attendance: Principal's perspectives

Year: 2017

Author: Howell, Angelique, Lynch, Deborah, Mills, Martin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Research provides considerable evidence to suggest links between excessive absenteeism and inhibited life chances. Attendance at school is therefore critical for ensuring that young people maximise the benefits of schooling, this is especially the case for those young people marginalised by poverty, race and personal circumstances. Hence, ensuring schools pay attention to attendance at, or absenteeism from, school has become a key equity consideration for many educational jurisdictions. The study from which this paper is taken involved extensive analysis of survey data, phone interviews with 50 school principals who were identified by their department of education as having overseen significant improvement in their school's student absence data; and ten case studies, involving principal, teacher, student and parent interviews, of schools considered to have exemplary practice in relation to attendance.

This paper focuses on data collected from the 50 principals. Interviews lasted for approximately one hour, and sometimes included a deputy or other senior figure in the school. The interviews sought perspectives on the causes of absenteeism, covering a wide range of personal, life and school circumstances, and the ways in which they had addressed these issues in their school. These data indicate that, for them, there is no 'fix-all' cure for chronic and/or frequent absenteeism, but a range of strategies that pay attention to school climate; the monitoring of data, including providing rewards for students who achieved or surpassed attendance targets; addressing the conditions that prevent attendance, such as financial hardship; and fostering relationships within and between the schools and their families and communities. Less attention has been paid to meaningful curriculum and pedagogical practice. However, this is not to suggest that curriculum and pedagogy were considered unimportant in the schools. Rather, that in general, quality curricula and pedagogies were not directly linked in these interviews to school attendance. This paper provides an overview of these interviews and in the process argues for a shift in current thinking around the excused/unexcused framework, alternatively proposing utilisation of the concepts of voluntary and involuntary absenteeism, as developed by Birioukov (2016), as a more suitable basis on which to explore issues and strategies surrounding attendance.