How one school changed the conversation on attendance

Simplifying its communication with parents helped a small school lift attendance by up to 20 per cent. Dani Cooper reports.

Image: Prioritising Aboriginal knowledge: Students at Willmot Public School are learning about their culture.

Willmot Public School has demonstrated how a focus on wellbeing and Aboriginal knowledge and cultural safety can significantly lift attendance.

The small school of around 165 students has been supporting families and students to attend school and in Term 2 this year managed to lift attendance rates by 20 per cent.

Willmot Public School principal Carley Bugeja said while their record-breaking streak had been hit in Term 3 by illness and weather, the 93% attendance high point proved “it could be done”.

“Since that record-breaking shift in attendance, we have experienced many peaks and valleys in our attendance data,” Ms Bugeja said.

“Sustaining momentum has been very difficult. We have been heavily impacted by ongoing illness, staffing challenges and bad weather. But, now we know we can get there!”.

“It’s our job to hold hope for our community while we move through the challenges, and use our data monitoring and attendance systems to get us back on track as things improve.”

Ms Bugeja said the school’s improvement in attendance was about “understanding the school community and meeting them where they are at”.

Feedback from the school community in early 2021 prompted the school’s Attendance and Wellbeing Team to simplify its attendance communication and include more culturally inclusive and less punitive language.

This was supported with messaging that reinforced the importance of parents’ role in helping their children meet attendance goals and highlighted the cumulative impact of periodic absences.

Before the new approach was stopped by the COVID lockdowns in 2021, whole-school attendance data increased by six per cent in 10 weeks, and targeted students averaged 13 per cent improvement.

“We changed our approach, negative feedback stopped and attendance improved. Parents and carers are not often in a position to tell you when you are on the right track. But, when they respond well to an initiative, you know you are doing something right,” she said.

Ms Bugeja said this new approach was supplemented by earlier work that stretched back to 2015 to build strong partnerships with local agencies and external service providers to support our families.

“This is an integral piece in the wellbeing and attendance puzzle in our school,” she said.

As part of engaging with their community, the school has prioritised Aboriginal Education with a dedicated Aboriginal Education Officer working with staff and students to increase the cultural knowledge base and promote cultural safety.

Ms Bugeja said this cultural awareness included understanding and respecting cultural practices that impacted on attendance, and isolating these absences from other non-essential absences when communicating about attendance concerns.

While the increase in attendance was yet to be felt consistently at a whole-school level, the school had seen the impact on individual student growth.

Ms Bugeja cited the example of a previously underperforming student who had a 30 per cent increase in attendance, and scored 75 per cent in the Check-in Assessment (Reading) which was 20 points above the State average.

The school’s average NAPLAN scores in Year 3 and 5 were above Statistically Similar Schools Group this year and there had been improvements in targeted areas such as reading fluency and writing.

Ms Bugeja said she was looking forward to taking part in Modernising the Workforce in Schools pilot that will roll out in Term 1 next year and deliver extra administrative staff to the school.

“I can see how employing additional SASS staff to support attendance systems in the school will futureproof our processes and protect the systems from the impact of disruptions we anticipate may continue for some time,” she said.

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