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Using Nudge Theory to Improve Attendance and Punctuality

  Groupcall     May 23, 2017

It's one of the big issues facing some schools: how do you make sure that all of them attend school? And punctually? It's not just a matter of making sure they're safe either: Ofsted requires every school to produce an attendance record.

According to the Inspection Handbook:

  1. Inspectors will consider:
  • overall absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups in relation to national figures for all pupils
  • the extent to which low attenders are improving their attendance over time and whether attendance is consistently low (in the lowest 10%)
  • punctuality in arriving at school and at lessons.

 Why might Ofsted be interested in that?  Because as far as they are concerned, attendance has an impact on performance. Put simply, if you're not in lessons, how can you learn anything?

A glance at the Grade descriptors for personal development, behaviour and welfare reveals what they will look for.

Under 'Outstanding':

"Pupils value their education and rarely miss a day at school. No groups of pupils are disadvantaged by low attendance. The attendance of pupils who have previously had exceptionally high rates of absence is rising quickly towards the national average."

Under 'Good':

" Pupils value their education. Few are absent or persistently absent. No groups of pupils are disadvantaged by low attendance. The attendance of pupils who have previously had exceptionally high rates of absence is showing marked and sustained improvement."

Under 'Inadequate':

"Attendance is consistently low for all pupils or groups of pupils and shows little sign of sustained improvement."

What these indicate is that although Ofsted doesn't specify what form your attendance analysis takes, they will expect you to have done something about improving attendance over time, especially for pupils who have had a higher-than-average level of absence.

This sounds like a tall order, but the first thing to consider is that if the school has been using a computer-based management information system, the basic data is already available.

Secondly, because of the way data is stored, and programs like Emerge present it, it is perfectly straightforward to quickly identify those pupils who attendance fails to meet the desired threshold. Back in 2015, we stated that 97% and above was considered excellent, while 85% was considered poor enough to warrant intervention. 

It would be tempting to think that the threshold you should filter for is, therefore, 85%. However, you might take the view that you should pick up poor attendance before that, by looking at the trend.

For example, if a pupil's attendance starts to slide from 97% in half-term 1 to 90% in half-term 2, perhaps that should be explored with the pupil and their parents before attendance slides even further.

Your data will also indicate a sudden drop in attendance, obviously, or, perhaps more subtly, erratic attendance. It will also show you if a particular child is taking every Wednesday morning off – perhaps at the same time as an older pupil.

Once you discover an attendance (or punctuality) pattern that needs addressing, what should you actually do?

One approach might be to employ the principles of Nudge Theory. This is about encouraging people to change their behaviour through subtle cues rather than draconian laws. For example, rather than threaten people with fines for littering, make more litter bins available.

An experiment was carried out recently in the USA, in which the school sent out postcards to parents asking them to improve their child's attendance. Some parents were sent a general message, while others were sent one with their child's attendance history. Strangely enough, the inclusion of those statistics didn't make any difference to the outcome, which was that attendance improved by 2.4% compared with that of a control group of parents who didn't have any postcard sent to them.

The study was quite small, so it's not possible to draw any cast iron conclusions from it. However, it does sound like an interesting approach you may wish to try in your school. You could even make the research more useful by sending some parents a text message, and others a postcard. Messenger lends itself very well towards conducting research such as this, with the ability to send emails, SMS and push notifications to parents in just a few clicks.

However you conduct the experiment, make sure you record it, and include it in your attendance analysis.

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Written by Groupcall

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