The Finnish Education Evaluation Centre is evaluating practices related to preventing and intervening in school absences in grades 5–9 of basic education in 2021–2023. The evaluation is carried out using an enhancement-led evaluation framework, and it is part of the development of national engaging school community work for 2021–2023, coordinated by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The aim of the evaluation is to produce information to support the drafting of a national model for engaging school community work while supporting local development work at the same time. The focus is on:
- Administrative and structural solutions that enable engaging school community work
- Practices and pedagogical solutions that support school engagement and prevent absences
- Operating methods that promote intervening in absences in absences.
The evaluation produces information on how effective the operating models related to absences are from the perspective of different actors, how the prevention and intervention of absences is a part of communal pupil welfare in schools, and what development needs are identified in practices related to the monitoring and statistics of absences. In addition, the evaluation examines how practices and pedagogical solutions that promote communality are used to support school engagement and absence prevention as well as what kind of practices schools have for intervening in absences and how effective they are from the perspective of different actors.
The results of the first phase of the evaluation
The evaluation data from the first stage of the evaluation was collected during the school year 2021–2022 with surveys directed at several different actors. The survey target groups were the coordinators of local pilot projects for engaging school community work, project-funded employees, education providers involved in pilot projects, the administrative and teaching staff of schools involved in the development work, and school welfare groups and student’s guardians. In addition, material was collected from school staff, pupils and guardians with school visits, interviews and workshops.
A sample was selected from the schools involved in the development of engaging school community work, and these schools carried out a self-assessment in a group consisting of management representatives, teachers and other persons working on the theme under evaluation. In addition, school welfare groups responded to their own self-assessment survey. The questions focused on absence-related operating models used in each school, operating methods that support school engagement, practices for intervening in absences, and cooperation between different actors.
According to the evaluation results, education providers mainly use a written operating model for monitoring and intervening in absences. The thresholds for intervening in absences defined in operating models vary greatly between education providers and schools, indicating a need to harmonise practices at national level. A large variation within the number of hours for intervening in absences also illustrates that different actors have different interpretations of when the absence is a cause of concern or problematic. Recognising school absences and intervening in them at an early stage is of paramount importance, as it is often a gradually developing problem. Operating models related to absences have strengthened early intervention and uniform practices as well as the division of labour between different actors in intervening in absences. It was observed during school visits that the kind of operating model that would be actively used in the daily life of a school supported teachers’ work and facilitated cooperation with guardians. Operating models lacked a description of preventive measures with regard to absences. The establishment of operating models as part of a school’s operating culture must be strengthened. The results indicated that guardians were mostly unfamiliar with the operating model related to school absences.
According to the evaluation results, monitoring and collecting statistics on absences is hampered by a lack of uniform practices and operating methods. The material showed that less than half of the education providers collected uniform monitoring data on absences at their schools. The recording of absences involved challenges that make it difficult to collect comparable, uniform data. Shortcomings in statistical and monitoring data make it difficult to assess the performance of the absence-related operating model and the operating methods being used. The development of monitoring and statistics collection requires the creation of uniform comparison categories of absences and the development of practices for recording measures taken to intervene in absences. In addition, it is necessary to reinforce the use of information in decision-making at the level of education providers and in the allocation of resources.
Supporting school engagement should be strengthened, especially as part of a school’s culture of interaction and daily pedagogical solutions. According to the evaluation material, staff, pupils and guardians had varying perceptions of practices that promote comfort and communality at school. Staff members emphasised separate group formation and theme days as a reinforcement of communality, while pupils and guardians emphasised everyday encounters and regular group formation. Describing the practices that prevent absences proved to be challenging in schools. Instead of problem-oriented thinking, the perspective of absence prevention should be switched towards supporting attendance. Switching the perspective emphasises the role of the entire school community and all its actors, which would steer thinking towards positive goals. Pupils’ school engagement, well-being and positive culture of interaction at school are significant factors in the prevention of absences. It is important to extensively see the work that supports school engagement as part of a school culture that supports inclusion. Building experiences of belonging in a community and facilitating encounters requires time and space, which should also be taken into account when developing school structures.
In the pilot projects of engaging school community work, resources have been directed to the development of the job description and working methods of non-teaching employees and to the implementation of class group lessons led by class teachers. The aim of these lessons is to strengthen pupils’ emotional and interaction skills and group formation and to prevent bullying. Experiences of these forms of work have only been accumulated over a short period of time. Non-teaching employees work in the development projects of engaging school community work under a number of different titles. In terms of the productivity of work, the community needs to have a joint discussion on the objectives of the work, the forms of work and the practices of cooperation between different actors as well as their inclusion in the operating methods of communal pupil welfare.
The results of the evaluation indicate that schools use various support measures and operating methods, albeit to varying degrees, for cases of prolonged absences. However, these are not very clearly structured. There are several factors behind absences, so the support measures required also vary from case to case. It would be important for education providers and schools to structure and describe the available methods of intervening in absences more clearly so that they are used appropriately and communicated to pupils and guardians. Most guardians are satisfied with schools’ actions in absence situations. The surveys and interviews with guardians revealed that, in order to receive necessary support measures, guardians must take active initiative. School staff describes support measures related to absences largely from the perspective of the schools’ official structures, while pupils hope for non-urgent encounters, listening and understanding. While systematic and recorded shared practices are being developed in schools, it is important to ensure that pupils’ thoughts and ideas are heard both when planning the support measures of an individual pupil and when planning a school’s operating methods more extensively.
Recommendations aimed at the pilot actors of engaging school community work
Based on the results of the evaluation, the evaluation group has prepared the following development recommendations aimed at the pilot actors of engaging school community work:
DEVELOPMENT OF OPERATING MODELS FOR THE PREVENTION, INTERVENTION AND MONITORING OF ABSENCES
- There is a need to strengthen the application of absence-related operating models to match the needs of each school and to establish them at school level.
- The monitoring and statistics collection of absences must be harmonised. The use of absence data in supporting pupils’ school engagement and well-being should be strengthened.
- The functionality of an operating model related to absences must be assessed at both the school and education provider level and developed on the resulting data.
- The practices for investigating the background causes of absences must be specified.
- Supporting school engagement and monitoring absences must be included in the annual schedule of communal pupil welfare and school welfare plan.
PRACTICES TO SUPPORT SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT AND PREVENT ABSENCES
- The work to prevent absences must focus on school engagement and strengthening attendance.
- Pupil participation in developing practices to strengthen the school community should be developed.
- Pedagogical solutions supporting school engagement should be developed
- Cooperation between home and school should be developed to enable the prevention of absences and early intervention. Attention should also be paid to strengthening cooperation in absence situations.
- Competence related to preventing and intervening in absences should be strengthened in the school community.
MEASURES FOR INTERVENING IN ABSENCES
- The development of operating methods for intervening in absences should take extensive account of practices promoting school atmosphere and communality and supporting the pupil’s well-being and learning. The operating methods and practices of multidisciplinary cooperation should be clarified.
RECOMMENDATIONS RELATING TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF ENGAGING SCHOOL COMMUNITY WORK
- The objectives and job descriptions of non-teaching employees must be specified.
- Class group lessons must be integrated into daily school life and teachers’ skillset.
What promotes school attendance? Parents’ and students’ perspective
Presentation on INSA 2022 -Conference: Making Waves to Advance School Attendance