United front helps overcome attendance issues

Public schools in Port Macquarie have worked hard to improve school attendance. Kristi Pritchard-Owens reports.

Image: Connection and communication are central to Port Macquarie Public School’s attendance uplift.

The last term of the year can be a difficult time getting students to keep up their good attendance, but four Port Macquarie schools on Biripi Country showed impressive improvement in Term 4, 2022.

Port Macquarie Public, Westport Public School and Hastings Secondary College Westport Campus were the top three schools for attendance out of 160 schools in the Regional North and West School Performance Directorate.

Tacking Point Public School, on the southern edge of the mid-north coast town, was ninth in the top attendance stakes, which were measured against Term 4, 2021 data, when the COVID-19 pandemic was causing havoc in schools.

Port Macquarie Public School principal Brett Thurgate said the school did some deep reflection on how to improve attendance.

“It came down to providing the time for our assistant principals to monitor the [student attendance] data very closely, and consistently follow up,” he said.

This allowed the school to identify students who found attendance a challenge and to then strengthen relationships with parents and carers.

“This really helped our executive team with deciding the best way to assist our families, including when an individual strategic plan for attendance might work,” Mr Thurgate said.

“Our assistant principals were able to include the student’s voice, along with input from parents and carers to make sure everyone was on board.”

The individual attendance plans were different for each student and included strategies to help the student to get to school, or arrive on time, and incentives and rewards for consistent improvement. The plans took into account the barriers that different families or individual students might face.

While the proof of the initiative was in the improved attendance data, the feedback from parents was also positive.

“We have had a couple of parents ask to keep their kids on the attendance plan, even after attendance has improved, because it’s worked so well for their family,” Mr Thurgate said.

Staff at Port Macquarie Public also began ensuring the school gate was closed at the start of every school day, so any late arrivals had to have an explanation of absence from a parent or carer.

Focusing on communication and strengthening student engagement were also key to improvements at a high school campus across town.

Hastings Secondary College Westport Campus established a process which ensured all absences were tracked, with regular communication home to parents to request an explanation.

Relieving principal Karen Noble said this strategy led to a big lift in attendance, when combined with a focus on student engagement and wearing correct uniform.

“One particular staff member, Glen Callaghan, was the driving force behind a whole-school approach to consistent and rigorous roll marking, following up on single lesson discrepancies, communicating with parents, and celebrating tiers of our student attendance through lunchtime BBQs and principal morning teas,” Ms Noble said.

“Each term we awarded students with gold, silver and bronze level certificates for their efforts in maintaining positive attendance and encouraged roll call teachers to celebrate students in their roll groups.

“We also made sure we were working with individuals and groups of students to ensure they felt cared for, supported, and valued for their part in our school community so that our efforts had longevity and we established a culture of positive school attendance.”

Both Port Macquarie Public School and Hastings Secondary College Westport Campus accessed strategic attendance support from the Department of Education when developing their approaches, but it doesn’t always take big changes to see improvement.

Westport Public School and Tacking Point Public School both reviewed their internal processes to ensure they were aligned with the Department of Education Attendance Matters resources.

The schools also worked with teachers and front office staff to ensure consistent delivery of this messaging.

“If you really want to make a difference with attendance, it’s about being on the coalface with the teachers, and also getting the communication to parents and engaging them,” Westport Public School principal Tony Johnston said.

“If we create a positive learning environment, the kids will be more engaged in their learning and naturally want to attend to school.”

Attendance Matters resources can be found at https://education.nsw.gov.au/student-wellbeing/attendance-matters-resources-for-schools

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