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Nudging Better Attendance

Working in a disadvantaged community or a school with large numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is a bit of a challenge.  Normal rules apply but there is a need to go the extra mile, insisting and working hard at things other schools take for granted; it can be exhausting.

Hence the idea of “nudging” appeals greatly; trying to change people’s behaviour in a certain way with minimal effort and expense.  People can ignore the nudge but the best nudges are like yeast; producing effects far beyond the effort expended.

Photo Credit: Eltpics via Flickr cc

Normal rules apply in Blackpool; quality teaching matters particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The extra mile challenge is getting pupils into the class room with sufficient regularity.  Attendance at St. Mary’s is in line with national average; great work for a school in Blackpool but still only in line with the national average.  As with schools across the country, on average, children from disadvantaged backgrounds attendance is less regular.  They are more likely to miss the quality teaching on offer and missing odd lessons breaks their learning progression; you are more likely to have to try to build new learning on gaps in learning created by absence.

The latest edition of Best Evidence in Brief linked to research from Philadelphia, “Can a postcard reduce pupils’ absenteeism?”  It’s a great nudge, if it works.  For about one pound per pupil, if the research results are replicated, we could see a 2.4% reduction in absence.  The project took three groups; a control group, one research group with a generic message encouraging parents to improve their child’s attendance and another research group with a message again encouraging parents to improve their child’s attendance but with specific information about the child’s attendance history.  Both messages proved to be equally effective in improving attendance.

I’ve read about the impact of the postcard, as opposed to a sealed letter, somewhere before.  The open nature of the information helps nudge behaviour; it’s why I’m a bit reticent about including specific information about a child’s attendance history.  It may contravene the Data Protection Act.

St. Mary’s has decided to nudge; targeting the intervention on a group of pupils who are not persistent absentees (so greater than 90% attendance) but haven’t yet reached national average, circa 95% attendance.  The final message has to be agreed but I’m hoping it will include something along these lines:

“If your child has 95% attendance s/he will miss 10 days of school this year and 50 days during their time at St. Mary’s.  With only 90% attendance s/he will miss 20 days and that’s 100 days during her/his secondary education.  These lost school days can’t be replaced.”

The 90/95% figures should resonate with the target group recipients of the postcard.  When something is 90%+ there is a feeling that that is very good; in attendance terms we want to bring home the message that this is not yet good enough.

The postcard will sit alongside another recently introduced scheme targeted at thirty Pupil Premium children with poor attendance.  It ran last half term; parents received a letter about the scheme and meet with a senior member of staff, at the beginning.  If certain attendance targets are hit the child and the family both receive a £30 voucher.  It’s important that the family as well as the individual child receive a voucher; we want to encourage a joint endeavour.  The family is then written to again at the end of the half term; it’s low effort and low maintenance.  We have a whole variety of other much more high costs, high effort interventions including a full time Pupil Welfare Officer working across the three academies within the Trust.

As no one received a voucher – the targets were deliberately set high rather than an improvement from their current low baseline – it could be considered a failure.  However, the group’s average attendance improved by 2.5 percentage points.  We’re keeping the scheme going for another half term as for minimal effort it was considered a reasonable return.

Quality teaching matters; as long as the pupils are in the class room to experience it.  The more pupils we can get in the class room with even greater regularity the better outcomes will be.

Best Evidence in Brief by the Institute for Effective Education, York University is a fortnightly e-newsletter; you can sign up here.




30 thoughts on “Nudging Better Attendance

  1. I really like the idea of nudging. I think it’s important to distinguish between approaches to promote attendance and responses to pupil absence. The postcards might helpfully be sent to the parents of children with improved (one term to another) or maintained high (above national average) attendance to pay credit to parents about what they are already doing, with a question about how they are managing to achieve this. Feedback from parents can be used to promote attendance using social media etc.
    I have created attendance and absence letters for schools using this approach. I’m happy to send them to you if you are interested.

    Posted by Teresa Mcilroy | March 15, 2017, 9:02 am
  2. Reblogged this on Teacher Voice and commented:
    We have a similar problem in our school and have been doing the same thing. Ironically one parent commented to me they want less messages about attendance but if they need to hear the message then they need to hear the message!

    Posted by mroberts1990 | March 17, 2017, 9:12 pm
  3. Thanks for this. Really helpful to my school. Would you have any advice for school having problem with sen attendance?
    Best wishes
    Joan McCarthy

    Posted by Joan mccarthy | March 18, 2017, 8:56 am
  4. Great idea to ‘nudge’ and avoid what can be confrontation and negativity in these situations and would often fuel discord and worsen a situation. Attendance area is easy to clash with families and led to a downward spiral

    Posted by pathman1967 | March 18, 2017, 9:37 am
  5. hi tersea = are those letters still available j.mcinerney@georgesalter.com

    Posted by JP MCINERNEY | September 18, 2017, 9:43 pm
  6. Hi Teresa, if you are still sending these letter I would be grateful for a copy please

    many thanks

    Sue Cumming

    Posted by Sue Cumming | November 13, 2017, 3:46 pm
  7. Hi Teresa,

    I know this is months after the initial offer, however if the letters are available I would be most grateful if you could send them to me at: PGoodrum@dixonska.com

    Many thanks

    Posted by P Goodrum | January 4, 2018, 10:22 pm
  8. Hi Teresa, I would be so grateful if you could send me some copies please. Many Thanks

    Posted by Dina Grainger | November 29, 2020, 8:14 pm


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