We are half-way through the term and for a great many, it has been typified by lost sessions due to coughs, colds and winter illness.
Increasingly schools and academies are given mixed messages about how to handle absences due to illness. A consortium of local authorities in Wales was vilified, rightly or wrongly, for publishing guidelines around incubation periods following illness. Do we need medical evidence and what more can we do?
When should you authorise absence?
With a growing number of parents and carers reporting difficulty in obtaining appointments for medical advice, schools can sometimes feel uncertain about whether to authorise absence or not. If the authenticity of the illness is in doubt, schools can request that medical evidence is provided. A variety of forms of evidence can be accepted e.g. prescriptions, appointment cards or sight of any medicine. As an attendance adviser, with an eye on what works and best practice, I would advise schools and academies to inform all parents and carers that medical evidence may be required to authorise absence. This information should be in attendance policies, be readily available on school websites and form part of a wider message to parents about how school will manage absence in general. It is also important for parents to understand that while schools are sympathetic to the difficulties that may occur when trying to get appointments to see medical professionals; in some cases if a child is too ill to attend school, they may need to see a doctor.
Absence: a whole school approach
So what else can we do? A whole-school approach is vital in combating unnecessary absence. The first point of contact (often the school administrator) can present real challenge to parents about whether their child is ill enough to miss two full sessions of school, or if their child would feel better for getting up, having breakfast and facing the day? As well as for the obvious and important safeguarding reasons, schools need to be pro-active by contacting home if a child does not attend school to prevent a couple of days’ absence becoming a week.
Schools and academies, as always, should be working closely with their designated school nurse (if they have one) for advice and guidance on whole school illness as well as supporting individual pupils. If there is illness at home, it often gets passed on. NHS England provides flu vaccines to all children between two and four years old and schools and academies may wish to promote this, particularly where children of school age have younger siblings at home.
Simple steps to prevent absence
Remember the simple things. We know that cold and flu viruses are spread by hand to object contact. Schools may be able to help prevent the spread of germs by taking steps such as ensuring hand sanitiser and tissues are available in classrooms for staff and pupils.
With the DfE reducing persistent absence (PA) to 10% from September 2015 (while there is little published about it so far, you will find the change confirmed here on page 71), a few days of illness may create a big PA problem for schools and for pupils with essential sessions lost. Where a pupil is persistently absent or has a pattern of poor attendance, expectations can be reinforced in a letter so that parents are absolutely clear about what will happen next and any possible consequences.
To support attendance, communication and safeguarding, it’s a good time for a reminder to update contact details (if you haven’t already) as lots of parents and pupils receive new mobile phones at Christmas and numbers are often changed.