School non-attendance in Bristol (2003-2004)

Contact: John Lee, Saville Kushner, John Dwyfor Davies, Gaynor Attwood

Sponsor: Bristol City Council

The City of Bristol commissioned the research into the reasons for non-attendance by young people in its secondary schools and to discover their attitudes to schooling in general.

The central focus of the work was on the views of a sample of young people who had records of very poor attendance. The interviewees were invited to attend the university for an informal, semi-structured interview. Each interviewee was invited to bring a friend and the process followed what is known as "paired pal interviews." A representative sample of parents was also interviewed, along with officers from the Education Welfare Service. Finally, the views of a senior secondary school manager and school attendance officer were also reported on. Parents were interviewed in their homes and professionals in their place of work using a semi structured interview schedule.


Students' views

  • The young people were able to identify with clarity the processes that resulted in them becoming non-attainders.
  • They make sense of their past experience - and some of them were able to comment on how those experiences will contribute to their futures, particularly the possibility of further training and employment.
  • In contrast to professionals (and much of the existing literature), they do not see the content of the curriculum as a problem for them.
  • They see the quality of personal relationships at school primarily in terms of relationships with staff, rather than the subjects individuals teach.
  • They identify the quality of relationships with staff in terms of what they see as 'mutual respect' and being treated in an 'adult fashion'.
  • They perceive teaching as an individual, rather than a group activity and see teaching as explanation rather than instruction.
  • The male students reported that relationship problems were mainly with the staff of schools (as opposed to peers).
  • Peer relationships are more significant for female students.
  • Bullying and intimidation by other students was seen as a problem for many of those interviewed and often precedes the decision not to attend school.
  • Contrary to much of the previous literature, our interviewees tended not to come from families within which there is a history of non-attendance.
  • Many expressed the view that they had found alternative educational provision preferable to school.
  • Transition from primary school to secondary and from Year 9 to 10 is problematic and for many, may lead to non-attendance.

Parents observations

In contrast with some earlier research, there was no evidence from these interviews of an anti school/education culture in the home. Parents offered the following observations:

  • Home/school communication systems are poor
  • School are deemed to be arrogant towards parents and students
  • For some parents the Education Welfare Service is not seen as a major source of support.
  • Learning mentors, Connexions personnel, alternative providers and individual Education Welfare Officers are identified as helpful.
  • The content of the curriculum is not problematic and it is useful in career terms.
  • Alternative provision works in getting students to reengage with learning.
  • Schools need to address the problem of bullying in a more effective manner.
  • Parents are eager for their children to attend and be successful in school

Secondary Senior Manager

  • Local circumstances are such that employment is easy to find resulting in a view that school is not relevant.
  • The nature of the curriculum and its content is inappropriate for many students
  • Curriculum is too rigidly defined more local control is needed.
  • Close relationships between FE and school needed for many 14+ students.
  • Attendance can be improved for those students with a 60-70% record of attendance.
  • Points of transition are triggers to non-attendance.
  • A strategic LEA policy is needed, for instance, to stop non attenders simply transferring schools
  • There is a lack of synergy between the decisions of schools, and appeals panels
  • Funding alternative provision is a major resource problem for many schools because funding follows pupils.
  • Positive rewards for attendance are needed such as trips to ten-pin bowling.
  • Relationships are only a problem for "disaffected" students poor relationships are often used as an excuse for non-attendance.

Education Welfare Officers (EWOs)

Four Education Welfare officers were interviewed two were new to the service and two who had been in post for a period of time. There is a difference in how they see the role although there are also major points of agreement. The following were identified as significant issues.

  • EWOs have a main responsibility for liaising with school and other services over issues of attendance.
  • Newer EWOs perceive the title as inappropriate since their role is concerned with attendance not welfare.
  • Long servers identify welfare work as important and significant
  • Schools must have attendance as a priority.
  • Legal justice system should be used more regularly and more effectively.
  • The law needs to be tightened up on attendance (newer officers.)
  • Timescale is too long in dealing with non attendance
  • A range of home circumstances is significant, particularly economic and social deprivation, substance abuse and illness.
  • The deterrents to non-attendance should be broadcast (newer officers)
  • Prosecution has improved children's lives because they now attend school.
  • There should be more surveillance
  • See themselves as a 'go between' school and parents (older officers)
  • Act as an advocate (older officers)
  • Special Needs and the curriculum are a problem for many students.
  • Alternatives are not necessarily the answer the drop out rate is quite high
  • Young people need to be respected and made to feel worthwhile.

School Attendance Officer

  • Substance abuse is a major problem particularly for attendance in the afternoon.
  • There are families in the catchment area who do not value education have a culture of non-attendance.
  • Nevertheless these families are resourceful.
  • For female students peer relationships are a major problem leading to non-attendance.
  • For male students relationships with staff my be problematic
  • Many members of staff do not have the skills to interact with students they intimidate but realise they are in a power relationship.
  • Alternative education is often a solution but it is a resource issue.
  • Many young people have narrow horizons and they need to be encouraged to expand those horizons
  • More non-teaching staff in schools such as learning mentors and LSAs are needed.
  • Provision should address local need.

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