The Government is planning to extend the law that holds parents to account when their child misses school unnecessarily. The new law would also cover the parents of children under six years of age. Meanwhile, Ballymun has come up with a completely new (and possibly complimentary) approach.
A Local Development Company in Dublin has used computer software and a community development approach to dramatically improve school attendances.
By Conor Hogan
In 2008, the attendance rate for primary schools in Ballymun was worse than that of other disadvantaged areas and 3.5% below than the national average.
Local community and educational organisations to take action and in the past two years the gap compared to the national average has halved. Last year, 14,000 less school days were missed in all.
Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism for Traveller boys has fallen by over 24% while the attendance rate for Traveller girls actually overtook the national average for schools in disadvantaged areas.
So how did they go about achieving this?
“A lot of work,” says Colma Nic Lughadha, Education Programme Manager with Ballymun Whitehall Area Partnership which led the initiative. “We knew that educational opportunities was one of the main priorities because of a survey we carried out among 500 local people.”
“Education came second on a list of seven priorities parents had for their children; only apprenticeships were prioritised more. The survey demonstrated to us that behaviour wasn’t matching opinion. But that opinion gave us a good position in which we could hope to mobilise the community.”
A more systematic approach than before was taken. Software was provided to the schools to keep track. Attendance Care Teams were established to raise the issue.
Meanwhile, home school liaison officers were employed in the schools for two hours each day with the specific task of getting into contact immediately with the absent children, whether that be by text or phone call. These were fully paid local people.
“And it was very important for our attitude to be non-judgmental,” Colma says. “It was about rewarding the positive behaviour and encouraging the children to take personal responsibility for their own attendance.”
Creative approaches were taken such as rewarding classrooms for full or best attendances and getting classes to compete for the top prize. This made children more determined to come in and motivated parents to bring them in and not let the side down.
A brochure was distributed to the parents as regards child illnesses, written in association with Dr. Tara Conlon, a local GP. The guide ‘When is a Child too Sick for School?’ is available online: https://www.ballymun.org/dloads/BMUN_School_Att_09.pdf (See pages 6-7).
Recommendations in it included “No need to stay home” for cold symptoms, “No need to stay home unless drooling” for hand foot and mouth disease, “They are a nuisance, not a reason to stay home” for head lice and “Stay home until 24 hours after last bout for diarrhoea.” This drastically reduced the number of children taking sick days.
Attempts were also made to make the school experience as positive as possible for the child, by welcoming each and every one of them in the morning, praising them for their efforts, giving out prizes for attendance achievements and not giving homework at the weekends.
“There are elements any school or community can learn from what we’ve done,” Colma says.
Ballymun’s model it could provide a prototype for the rest of the country.
The average absentee rate in primary schools nationwide, measured in terms of the number of schooldays lost in a school year, stands at 6.2%, according to the latest figures published in May. A total of 9,485,562 days of school were missed by all primary and secondary students across the State in 2009/10.
FIND OUT MORE
The Ballymun School Attendance Community Action Initiative was funded by the dormant accounts board in association with Ballymun Whitehall Area Partnership and the Local and Community Development Programme.
If school attendance is an issue in your area and you wish to learn how Ballymun did it, check out the downloads section of this BWAP’s website: www.ballymun.org