Free article: Supporting children in need with their attendance

Published: Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A new report identifies attendance as one of the main barriers preventing children in need from improving their educational outcomes. In this article, Suzanne O’Connell considers the implications of the report for attendance practice.


  • Schools should have high expectations of their children in need, whilst also recognising the additional barriers they might face.
  • It is important that children in need are given stability and consistency in their school life and that a supportive adult is made available to them.
  • Schools must find the balance between adjustments and maintaining expectations.

The report, ‘Improving the educational outcomes of Children in Need of help and protection: Interim findings’ attempts to address the issue of why children in need fall behind at school. Pupils who were in need at any point from 2011/12 to 2016/17 had worse educational outcomes than pupils who were not. By ‘children in need’ the report refers to any child receiving statutory support from social workers and to disabled children.

The report suggests that there is no single cause of poor educational outcomes for children in need. The main barriers that they identified included:

  • attendance: difficulties getting to school
  • learning: difficulties concentrating; difficult home learning environment; SEND and arriving at school not ready to learn
  • behaviour: socially-inappropriate or challenging behaviour linked to attachment issues
  • well-being.

We are reminded how important it is that schools continue to have high expectations of these students. However, schools also need to recognise the particular challenges they face and put into place ways of helping them to overcome them. The researchers suggest that key points for action are:

  • strong leadership and shared goals that establish high aspirations for educational outcomes
  • skills and training to recognise the impact of trauma and adversity and to understand children’s behaviour
  • inclusive, whole-school approaches
  • good relationships with children and families through clear communication, empathy and advocacy, underpinned by stability and consistency of support
  • effective multi-agency working and information sharing.

The importance of these factors when it comes to improving children’s life chances is not exclusive to children in need. However, children who are experiencing, or who have experienced, trauma and face challenging home circumstances can be particularly vulnerable if they are not in place.


The attendance of children in need can be particularly variable. They are often subject to transitions between schools and might join a school mid-year. This can be dictated by changing placements and this lack of continuity is unsettling and disruptive for the child concerned.

During transition, the children can be worried about what is happening and difficulties at school can escalate. Any support systems that the child has had can be lost or at least interrupted. Consistency is vital for the child and all services should avoid changes in support if possible.

There can also be challenges in accessing school transport, particularly where a family has moved home or the child has been moved to another carer. This can lead to attendance being late or spasmodic and it is important that the attendance officer and school management take this into account. They should look for ways of assisting the family in the practicalities of getting to school on time, every day.

Where a transport system is put into place, this can also cause difficulties if it means that parents do not pick up and drop off and therefore have less opportunity to meet school staff. These factors, along with issues to do with parents’ own experiences of school, can mean that attendance officers should be prepared to meet away from school.

Schools should look closely at the systems they have in place for supporting children and young people who enter the school mid-year. They might construct a special welcome package that includes linking the pupil with a key member of staff who can update them on school policy, practice and what to expect generally.

A consistent adult

The report recommends that children have a consistent adult available to them who they can trust. Again, the idea of the key worker who has built a relationship with a child and their family is not new. School staff are in an ideal position to offer the hope of stability. They are likely to have longer-term involvement in a child’s life and can also have more frequent contact than a social worker, being more immediately available.

When a child transfers schools, one member of staff might be identified to:

  • provide introductory materials
  • meet with family and identify methods of communication
  • arrange a regular check up meeting with the student to see how things are progressing
  • discuss any special arrangements that need to be made.

The student should know how to contact their link person in case of an emergency, but care should also be taken that they don’t feel singled out and are not made to feel different to their classmates.

Where a student is already in a school and is subsequently identified as being a child in need, then an existing relationship with a member of staff can be built upon. During the research for the report, both practitioners and children referred to the importance of children in need having a consistent adult available to them. They need to be able to trust and rely on someone with whom they have a good relationship and whose support is unconditional.

Services together

It is important that key information is available to those working with the student. Schools should have the right information from children’s social care, police and health. If this information isn’t available, it can mean that a lack of motivation to learn is misunderstood and is dealt with out of context. It is crucial that the attendance officer is aware of any particular circumstances that could impact on attendance.

Plans can be used to share this information. For example, there are personal education plans for looked-after children and education, health and care plans for children in need with SEND. Other children in need might have a child in need or child protection plan in place. Where a child is looked-after, then the attendance officer might work with the virtual school head to identify ways of improving attendance and maximising the use of the Pupil Premium Plus. Attendance is an important part of any care plan and multi-agency work should be promoted.

Where a family is working with a number of different services, then these services should try to work together to ensure that the family does not feel overwhelmed. Every attempt should be made to avoid the duplication of requests for information, and services should try to minimise the number of adults that a family are working with at any one time.

Operation Encompass has been used as an example of an effective way in which information is shared quickly and in a focused away across services. After an incident of domestic abuse, police contact a lead safeguarding professional in the school the next morning. This gives the school the opportunity to think about the impact on the child and how to support in response.

Sometimes no action needs to be taken, but if the school is aware of what has happened, then they can make any adjustments that are needed. There should be methods of alerting staff in the school that a child might be particularly sensitive on a given day, allowing teachers to take this into consideration.

Proportional adjustments

It is a fine balance between supporting children in need by adjusting the requirements that apply to the general school population and avoiding them feeling different from their peers. However, it is clear from this report, and attendance officers are aware from their own observations, that children in need will sometimes come to school distressed. It is expected that schools provide some level of flexibility within their systems and appropriate procedures where this is the case.

This might include making spare uniform and supplies available to help those who may arrive ill-equipped. It may include some adjustments to homework timetables and special arrangements for lunch periods or breaktimes. There might need to be some flexibility on the availability and use of mobile phones so that students feel able to keep in touch where they are anxious about other family members.

The report states:

‘In creating an environment where vulnerable children believe they can achieve, schools must strike the delicate balance between maintaining high expectations and an individualised supportive approach.’ (Page 20).

This can be difficult and it is important that there is a whole-school approach that doesn’t leave the student meeting resistance from some members of staff but not others.

Pastoral and academic needs side-by-side

The report suggests that both pastoral and academic needs should be tackled alongside one another. However, attendance officers will see cases where social difficulties preclude any type of learning taking place. Children in need are at risk of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. They can leave a chaotic home environment each morning and be exposed to domestic abuse, mental health needs and drug or alcohol misuse.

For a period of time, martialling available services to address pastoral needs must be the priority. This does not mean that the academic needs of the child are neglected but that, at different periods of time, one might take precedence.
Since January, researchers have been working with the Education Endowment Foundation to provide a new analysis of the impact of interventions for children in need. In the meantime, attendance officers should work alongside pastoral and academic staff to provide as stable, consistent and supportive a school environment as they can.

Further information

  • Improving the educational outcomes of Children in Need of help and protection: Interim findings, DfE, 2018:


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.