School Improvement Episode 51: A focus on student attendance

Before we get into this episode, are you subscribed yet to the free weekly Teacher bulletin? Get a weekly wrap of our latest content straight to your inbox. Join our community by clicking on the sign-up button at our website,

Hello and welcome to this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp. We’re back with episode 51 of our School Improvement series, where we share how schools are working to lift student outcomes. An important part of that is attendance. If students aren’t turning up to lessons they’re missing out on that learning. And it has a cumulative effect as they go through school – a day off a month might not seem like a lot, but it really begins to stack up through primary and secondary. It’s not just the academic side of things, there’s the social element too. My guest today is Glenn Kayes, Deputy Principal at Kellyville High School in New South Wales. He’ll be sharing how the school’s average student attendance rate has increased, thanks to an evaluation and review of existing policies and procedures, and a raft of new measures. First though, here’s Glenn with an overview of the school and its community context. Enjoy the episode!

Glenn Kayes: Yeah, I'm from Kellyville High School, we come to you from Dharug land in the Hills Shire of Northwest Sydney. So, we’re a co-educational comprehensive school, about 870 students, of which 42 of those students [are in] the inclusive education unit at our school. We have about 4% of students from an EAL/D [English as an Additional Language or Dialect] background and we have about 15 students that identify as Aboriginal and Torres State Islander students.

We sort of split our school into 2 – a middle school and a senior school model. So, middle school (which is 7/8/9), which is about and teaching and building school culture, and about wellbeing, literacy and numeracy. And then as we go into our senior school, that's where we focus on academic rigour and pathways, and school to work options from there.

So, that's a bit about our school and how our school’s made up and where we're situated. We're probably situated in an area of Sydney that's very competitive educationally. We've probably got, within 10 kilometres of this school, there’s probably 4 or 5 private schools, where parents have the option about where to where to send their kids to school.

JE: Yeah. Now, your average attendance rate there at Kellyville was 87.3% in 2019. Now it's up to 90.35%, so it's above that 90% mark which is always good, but it's also 2.25% above the New South Wales state average for secondary schools. I want to talk about what's been happening between those 2 points, then, to lift that figure. First of all, I guess it was just a case of being aware of the issue – what was the data telling you?

GK: Yeah, I guess, look, our school went through a bit of a shift. We’d had a fair bit of staff changeover and turnover leading in just prior to COVID, and then coming after COVID where myself and the principal sort of jumped on board. And I guess COVID for us was a good time to reevaluate some of those systems because, yeah, we had close to a 35 to 40% turnover of staff. And so, whenever that happens, your systems get strained and things like that. So, I think we took an approach where we reviewed a lot of our systems and attendance was definitely one of them; it's just such an important thing, getting students to school.

And I think one thing in particular that came out of that data was, I guess what I call is the amount of students in that sort of that ‘sleeper’ range, which are the 80 to 90% attendance rate. [So, when you dug deeper into the data] and you had to look at some of those students, they’re the student that sits pretty quietly in your classroom, they probably sit around the C grade average, don't really rock the boat too much. And, I mean, there's exceptions to that rule, but as a whole, we found that there was sort of a lot of our students that were in that kind of range. So that was something that really stood out to us in that period of time.

And I think one really proactive approach that we took to that was we joined a number of schools in Sydney's Northwest region and were part of the department's Every Day Counts. There was a conglomerate of schools there. And that was a really beneficial thing for us as leaders within the school, because it was just fascinating to not only just have the time to sit down and actually reflect on our attendance practices – and there was some great tools that the department provided us to do that – but also just being able to spend that time with high schools. And look, there was high schools from broad ranges of socioeconomic backgrounds, not just similar to ours, and just learning what fantastic stuff a lot of schools are doing and just being able to adapt and model that into our context was a really helpful part I think for us in in developing some of the strategies that we were able to develop. It was definitely, that was a regionwide approach which were grateful to be a part of and played a pretty significant part in probably the uplift in the attendance. Just that time that we had to bounce ideas off each other was really valuable.

JE: Yeah, and it's good isn't it to see what other people are doing as well, so that sounds useful. And you mentioned there about the leadership team having a look at the data and that it was a good time to review it. Was it something you think that individual classroom teachers were aware of? Was it being reported often? Were people aware of attendance? Was it fully on their radar? Because there's a lot going on, isn't there, in the school day.

GK: Oh, 100% there’s a lot going on, and I think sometimes that we can get a bit individualised at times as teachers, when we get into the day-to-day grind with things. And I would say, look, teachers were aware, and teachers were doing things on an individual basis. And I think what we were able to do as a leadership team is – now with those processes, we've got attendance as a key talking point throughout a lot of processes that we have involved in school. It's a process where we track student data, particularly those students in the 80 to 90% range, and that’s readily published for all staff to see and to view … and figures and information is regularly put in front of staff. So, it comes a lot more to forefront of mind. I guess, like most things in education, there's so many things that there's pressures on all kinds of areas, but at the end of the day, we need to be getting students through school and, yeah.

So, I would say, look, classroom teachers were doing their own individual thing, but now we've just got a much more together whole team school approach towards it. We've developed an Attendance Team. Before we sort of reviewed this, there was one poor bloke just trying to, you know … and he did a fantastic job here at our school, he was one of the main driving forces. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for another school, he's gone to a new startup school in Sydney Northwest. But the attendance was sort of his responsibility and as you know, that's just a massive responsibility. We’ve got 870 kids – for one person to kind of be doing most of the lifting just wasn't a sustainable approach.

So yeah, that I would say that's one thing that we've really done well is we've got a team of people now working across different key areas within the school and it's heavily embedded in our Wellbeing Team that meets on a weekly basis. Attendance is now a key discussion as part of that Wellbeing initiative and that's I think one of the things that has made a big impact it's been front and centre of what's going on.

JE: So, you did this evaluation – a review of policies, and your procedures – you kind of stripped everything right back. And, as you mentioned, you did that with other schools as well, and the New South Wales Department of Education has the Every Day Counts workshops. And all of that led to you create a dedicated School Attendance Team. What does that involve? Who’s on the team and how does it operate?

GK: The way that we've set up the team is like, we didn't want it as necessarily another job for other people. Myself and the other [Deputy Principal], in addition to our administration – we have a fantastic administration staff member here that is a key driving force, and I work very closely with her, as does the other deputy, as part of it. But our Head Teacher Welfare and our Year Advisors are really the driving force, I guess, of the Attendance Team.

And with Year Advisors and Wellbeing, and associating wellbeing and attendance, we just found that it was so valuable. Because quite often you'd have a conversation and we'd encourage a Year Advisor to have a conversation about attendance; and some of the wellbeing issues, unless someone had that conversation with that student we wouldn't know. And there's been some really significant sort of benefits that students have gained from that; and even just some stuff that we haven't known, and just being able to support students that would have just previously been sitting in our classrooms and probably taking a day or 2 off because of what was going on that we had no awareness of.

Also within the team, we've also got an Aboriginal Education Coordinator we've got here at the school, and we've got one of our SLSOs [Student Learning Support Officer] in the Inclusive Education section here where we've got 42 students and she works very closely with a lot of the families and the attendance and provides some input from that perspective here too. So, that makes up our immediate team.

The Head Teachers, like I said, they've been provided data; we get data every 5 weeks, we work off a data system, so every half-term break. And then yeah, that's sort of informed some of their discussions about what they run in Faculty meetings too. So there's kind of like a smaller core team and then that kind of breaks out into a larger team there.

JE: And for people who aren’t aware of the terminology where you are, the SLSO (that’s a Student Learning Support Officer) I’ll just get you to explain that one.

GK: So, yeah, they just assist with classroom procedures. They're not a teacher, but just assist the teacher … can go round and assist individual students with their day-to-day work, but they also help out with some administrative tasks for teachers as well, particularly in our Inclusive Education faculty where we've got our students with mild intellectual disabilities and mild to moderate autism as well.

JE: And just on the point of having a dedicated team – there are benefits there obviously with, as you said, everybody knowing what's happening, there's an awareness there within the staff. You’re keeping track of those conversations, you're on top of it all. Is some of it also to do with the perception of you taking this really seriously? You know, you’ve got a dedicated team, and this is something you really care about, isn't it? Was that kind of in your minds as well?

GK: Look, to put the effort in, we want it to work, and we want it to be sustainable. And one of the big tests for us recently was (in terms of its sustainability and success) when we did have one of our key members in setting it all up move on, and it's still being able to function. There's no doubt we miss someone, as they do when they move on, but the system's still been able to roll on, which has been a really key fact.

But we place a lot of emphasis on it because at the end of the day, you know, you can put all the programs that you want into school but at the end of the day if students aren't getting along to school, we can't implement those programs. We can't put in place those numeracy and literacy programs to improve numeracy and literacy standards unless the student’s physically coming along to school. And I think some of it too, even from a staff perspective, you look at sort of 90% as an attendance figure, what you talked about before – the students attending 90% they're still having 20 school days off a year, which is still a phenomenal amount of time off. I mean, you and I both know that in our workforce, 20 days off your boss will be asking you some pretty serious questions.

And 20 school days, you times that by – we've got 5 periods per day, that’s 60 minutes per period, you’re missing close to 5-and-half hours of education times 20 … 100 hundred-odd hours of learning that you're missing is the first and foremost part. But it's also about educating people and equipping them when they come to the leaving aspect too, like [year] 10/11 and 12 – ‘look, next year you’re not going to be able to have one day off a fortnight when you're at your workplace, that's just not going to be the reality, you're not going to hold down a job.’ And that's the seriousness, and that's what has to be made realised that we can help you if you’re here, we can't help you if you're not here, that makes it a lot more difficult.

JE: And another thing I was particularly interested in was the student surveys. So, you carried out these surveys with the middle school students, I think, (you mentioned there you’ve got a kind of split model there) to try and figure out some of those underlying issues. Because, again, great to have the data but a headline figure doesn't tell us enough. So, what were the issues affecting the students? What were some of the things that came out of the survey?

GK: The key thing about the survey was that we had discussions with those students in that 80 to 90% range. And it was quite interesting the feedback that came back when we approached those students – it was like ‘oh, am I in that range?’ There was sort of a lack of, even a lack of awareness that they’d even fallen into that attendance pattern, and just having that having that initial conversation with the students.

I was a very simple survey, it would have taken them probably about 2 minutes tops to fill in a paper survey, anonymous – yes, we identified a group, but in terms of your actual response, we don't want your names or anything at the top we just want the honest feedback about some of these answers. And the first one literally was around what was the reason for your last absence – and there was ‘tired’, ‘family reasons’, ‘holidays’ and just a few options for them to select there. And there was some good honesty because I think that when you look through those answers a lot of them were probably around that ‘oh, you know what, I probably could have made it’. You know, there weren't that many sort of serious medical appointments and things like that that we that we talked about, that they identified.

So that was sort of the first question, the other one was just rating a few things at school: Are the lessons interesting? Is the school comfortable in terms of its environment, both the classrooms and facilities around the school; Does my school have effective anti-bullying things in place? I have difficulty participating in class work. And then what changes could be made. And look, what changes and improvements – you ask students that question ‘what changes and improvements could be made?’, there were some very interesting and colourful answers. I think like one of them was quite amusing – ‘I think we should have a 4-day week at school’ … well, you're pretty close to achieving that at the moment without this.

But something came out of it. We sort of realised with, more younger students (the [years] 7 and 8) that they hadn't been sort of trained as rigorously in our anti-bullying policy as what our older year groups had. So, we went back in our wellbeing lessons and kind of revisited some of the things they addressed.

But the thing overall that we got out of the survey was actually identifying and having a chat with those students. And I would say that, as a strategy, and what's led to some of our further strategies which we've developed, is just having that chat and knowing that they've been actually identified and that someone's actually cared and taken a bit of interest in having a discussion with them. That led, in our next term, to 40% of those students that were within that 80 to 90% range, moving from that 80 to 90 range into 90 and above. And I think that was purely based around the fact that someone had actually gone and had a conversation with them around the survey.

So, I guess the survey was a good tool, the survey (yes) did provide some aspect, but what that survey did was then realising that ‘look, we need to just have more conversations with students about attendance’ – that’s something that's driven a lot of our strategies moving forward.

After the break, Glenn Kayes will be sharing some of the attendance strategies that are making a difference at Kellyville High School, and the team’s plans for the future.

If you’re enjoying the Teacher podcast channel, have you subscribed yet to the free Teacher bulletin? It’s the best way to get our latest stories straight to your inbox. In addition to a weekly wrap up of our latest content, subscribers to the bulletin can receive Teacher Trending, where we share our top 5 pieces of content on a trending topic, and special editions where we share a bonus piece of content with you. The sign-up process is easy – just visit our website, and click on the sign-up button on the righthand side of the homepage.

JE: So, let's have a chat about the strategies. Now, I know that some people listening are maybe like ‘oh, tell us the strategies first’. And sometimes it can be a bit like that in a school, where you think we want to act right now, what can we do (with the best of intentions) but as we've been discussing today, it's really important first of all to think about what your local context is and what your data is saying, and then digging deeper into the underlying issues, finding out more about the problem, and then having a think about how you can tackle all of that. So, all of those things then that we've talked about – the review and the evaluation, you'd worked in a hub, as you said you had some great input from other schools as well, you’ve created a dedicated Attendance Team and at this point you had all the info from the student survey as well. That's all led to a raft of measures, hasn't it?

GK: Yeah, you really have to have a good look at systems and I think, obviously student input’s important to those sorts of strategies that you have moving forward.

I would say that one of our key strategies moving forward was just the education to parents around 80 to 90% and what that looks like. Because to be honest, I'm a parent, I've got 3 boys myself, they're still in primary school, but I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what their attendance percentage is, so … you know, they're pretty good, they show up to school most of the days and everything like that. But life gets busy as a parent – one of the things that we identified was ‘well, we need to start putting some stats in front of parents about what [each] percentage means and really pushing what percentage attendance your son or your daughter is currently sitting at. And like I said, it's very easy to just sort of sweep that under; we’re busy and things sort of creep into our life.

What we did is, again, sent home that data sheet that basically talks about ‘every day matters’, ‘every day counts’, and we're talking about (like I said before), the 90% that's 20 school days off, which is basically a day off a fortnight. You start to move towards the 80% mark – well, it's close to a day a week, we're talking a day a week. So, 40 school days, you know, we've got basically 40 school weeks in a year. You're having a day off a week. We give out the lesson by lesson – we explain then ‘well, that’s how many lessons, how many hours of learning?’ One day off a fortnight is equivalent to, if you have that pattern from kindergarten through to year 12, you're basically the equivalent of finishing in year 11 because you've missed, by that stage, a whole year of your schooling. And then you divide that down and then you go ‘well, hang on a sec, we go further and we look at – all right, if you're down at 80% and that's been your pattern, it's the equivalent of you finishing in year 10, even though you're sitting for the HSC, we're talking 2 years of schooling that's missed out’. And I think when some of those stats started going in front of parents, it was very interesting. It was even interesting having a chat with staff about that as well, because it's just something that, you know, when those kinds of numbers are discussed, you go ‘oh, hang on, this is a serious sort of thing’.

It was quite amusing actually, one of the stories out on assembly when we first started pushing this. So, I was just walking through – we have an assembly once a week on a Monday – and walking through and we were pushing from the front just saying those stats and, anyway, I walked past this student and our previous Head Teacher of Admin got up and just said, you know that if you're sitting around 80% that you're having a day off a week. I just heard this kid go ‘oh, that's BS, I don't have a day off a week’. And then, anyway, so I just went and had a bit of a chat with him. I said, ‘Oh look, you know, look …’ and went through the maths and he’s like ‘oh, it's actually serious’.

So, I guess that awareness was really the first key. We send out an Attendance Report every 5 weeks and on that [is] an attendance road map, which, it's a pretty little graphic that's a windy road and it has 100% perfect that you're at school every day and then it goes down to sort of 80% and then makes linkage to some educational research around what missing 80% looks like and what are some of the social and learning outcomes are, as a result. There are some really interesting stats that we put out to parents. The obvious one – non-attendance is linked with poorer academic achievement and long-term student outcomes; higher rates of absences have been associated with lower NAPLAN scores; unauthorised absences have greater impact on achievement than authorised absences.

So, putting some of this data in front of parents was key, and that was probably one of our first things that we went to and also putting that data right in front of students. So, the attendance road map – and that even mapped period by period for high school, so that way parents could potentially know and also staff can potentially know, and our Attendance Team, can know ‘hang on, is there starting to be a pattern here? Is this student trying to avoid a particular subject?’ and those kinds of things. So, I guess that first thing was education and information out to parents.

Our next thing was that one of our big goals is once we identify students through data analysis do we know the story of this student? And that’s sort of a big driving factor – as a Wellbeing Team here, as an Attendance Team here, do we know the story of this student? Do we know what are some of the barriers about, you know, them attending school? So, I think that was the second one, is having that real drive to say ‘look, we want to know you, we want to know you as a student, we want to have a conversation with you. We're not here to hit you with a stick, we're here to encourage you and bring you back on board and try and support and encourage you and get you to school more often and try and break down some of the barriers about why is that you can and can’t get to school.

… Third one – we reward students for positive attendance. We have a very simple model.
They get given a positive for 95%+ for every 5 weeks. People get sick and in a 5-week period you can get sick with COVID or flu and you're off for 4-5 days. So, that period you might miss out, but it gives students the opportunity then to get back into that 95% range and we make sure we acknowledge that in the 5 weeks; so, noticing improvement and acknowledging that. At the end of the year, if students are in our top percentage range – so we at the moment have got it set at 95, but we're looking to increase that, to set our expectations higher – above 95% at the end of the year, we have a celebration day where we provide food and we provide some fun kind of ‘minute to win it’-style games and activities to just acknowledge ‘look, you've been here every day and we value that, and this is how we’d like to show our appreciation here as a school.’ And so that's sort of something that we do there in terms of promoting it through positive attendance, making sure, yeah, that we're also acknowledging that improvement in attendance too.

And probably the last thing that I would say has been a big significant shift here is post-COVID I think it was probably pretty challenging to get things back up and running again, particularly at the start we were under some different things – we couldn’t have this running, we couldn’t have that running, it’s just school business. And then trying to build that culture back up again was a bit challenging. But now we heavily promote our co-curricular activities here at school. Looking at the data, we noticed that there's a group around our year 9 area where, particularly boys, and a lot of them were boys that are into sport. And so, we don't have rugby league in our regular zoned sport, but there was a number of those boys that were really into their rugby league on the weekend. So, we started to develop a knockout rugby league team to try and meet some of the needs, and that help with those boys’ attendance. Like, just get them to school, getting them involved in our school community is a core part.

One of the other things, we have an Islander night too – Pacific Islander night, where there's dances performed from students from (there was a local school involved too) all the different island cultures; we also had an Iftar night for students at the end of Eid, that those families could come along [to] and celebrate in our school community. So, it was really about trying to get the whole community on board to really promote sort of school culture and just it's about we’re a community and we all need to be in this together. And I think that's one of the rewarding things about seeing the attendance rate that we've had here. It's no good it just coming from a staff point of view or a student point of view, parents need to be involved, staff were involved in the increase, and students were involved – we all need to buy into it. So, from a school community point of view that's been a massive thing.

And I would say one last thing on it too is that we've also spent a bit of time in our wellbeing period that I was talking about before. We run a program here that's developed by psychologist. It's called RIOT, which I know sounds a funny name for a program that you want ever in your school, but it's Resilience In Our Teens. And so it's a big resilience program that we sort of identified with a number of other schools that have jumped on board this program is having a look at sort of some of the resilience that is a big issue with our young teens. So, just getting a bit of an understanding for them about how their brain works and getting around the feelings of like, you know, feeling a bit anxious at times is OK, it doesn't mean that we can't achieve and can't do things. So, we spend a bit of time in that space as well just really teaching that program and getting that instilled. Just getting students getting a good understanding about some of the struggles that they face and that in life we will face struggles and it's okay that we do face struggles, but this is how we can help get through them and that we will see the other side. So I think that's sort of been one of our big pushes as well there in terms of attendance strategies.

JE: You've got an awful lot going on there and it’s great to hear. And, again, just to reiterate for people listening that some of the things that you've chosen might not work in their context (and you've really spent that time looking into your context) but certainly making people aware of the data and what it means, that’s always a great starting point. We've done a few pieces recently on attendance; my colleague Dominique Russell had a look at some research from the US which found that parents and families are often really unaware of the extent of the problem, and that really echoes what you were saying there, and then also students are unaware of the problem. And, again, that kind of echoes what was going on in your context, which is really interesting. Okay Glenn, you've done a lot already and you’re starting to see that shift now – you've seen a positive shift in the overall attendance rate. I’m interested to hear a bit about your focus for the future.

GK: Look, the focus for the future, I mean, like anything, I guess some of these students, when we first started the program probably about 2 years ago now, they're moving into our senior school and it's about sort of teaching and refreshing some of the information as well and making sure it's just not the same stuff going out because that just gets boring when you see that. So, it's about refreshing some of those.

We've got some individual areas, like most schools, that we're probably working through and working on. Look, one of the big issues sort of [post-COVID] was that in this area of Sydney it's quite often that both parents are have left for work (you know, we're sort of probably about 45 minutes to an hour away from the CBD here), so both parents quite often have left for work before students have to get up and go to school. And I would say that for, you know, probably the last year and a bit we probably had the advantage of a lot of parents have been working from home and that's a shift now that more parents are probably doing a few extra days back in the office now. There's always sort of new areas that you’ve got to be aware of. I guess constantly speaking with students about ‘what are some of the issues?’ I guess, going back to that, that’s sort of going to reshape a bit about and where we head. I think, at the moment we’re still, we're going back into that evaluation stage where we go back and have a relook at some of the survey, maybe have a look at some new students there. We're looking at partial attendance at the moment, just students that are pretty consistently late.

I would say, one of the big things that’s been up for discussion in a lot of schools, particularly around this area and post-COVID is that the reality is that there is a multicultural background within and around this area and a lot of those families didn't get the opportunity during COVID to go over and see their extended families, which are located overseas. Now, you know, and that was a difficult thing for them post-COVID and I guess one of things we're facing now is with the cost of living pressures, if you go to travel in the school holidays you're probably playing a couple of $1,000 for a flight compared to if you go out of school holidays where you pay $600 to $800. And then there's an economical factor there where it's it becomes challenging, and that's something that we're sort of working and navigating that space. Look, I don't really have the answer for that yet, but they're probably sort of some challenges which I guess we're facing moving forward.

The forward is that we need to make sure that we continue to be on top of that data and that we keep looking at ways to reinvent ourselves. You know, yes, that was positive data that we received and we're really stoked with the 2.25% above state average but you know it's no good just being at the top and yeah looking back, it's just like well we've got to keep working and making ourselves better and aiming higher here. And so just they're just going to keep committing and contributing to that.

JE: So, yeah, still plenty to do, but definitely celebrate the progress that you've made and well done to you all there and best of luck to you and the team for the rest of the year. And thanks very much for giving us such a great insight into what's happening.

GK: No, thanks a lot Jo, I really appreciate the opportunity to share. Hopefully some schools can take something away from what I've been able to share this morning and adapt it to their context in their schools.

That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening. If you want to keep listening now, a reminder there are 300-and-odd episodes in the Teacher archives, and if you could take a moment to leave a rating and a review it really helps people like you to find the podcast and it’s a great support for the Teacher team.

Before you go, are you currently subscribed to the weekly Teacher bulletin? It’s a free weekly wrap of our latest content straight to your inbox. Join the more than 40,000 educators who are already part of the community by clicking on the sign-up button at our website,

What is the data saying about student attendance in your own school? Are parents aware of this data? Do students know what their own attendance rate is?