Debate continues to rage about the ‘forgotten third’ and whether students should be ‘forced’ to re-sit English and maths GCSEs in Post-16 education.
For practitioners and leaders on the front line however, and with Post-16 GCSE grade 4 national averages dropping in comparison to last year, thoughts turn to combating similar challenges that were fought in 2018/19. These are all challenges that have been faced before: student apathy; contextualisation; funding and, perhaps the most problematic issue, student attendance.
Although the government does not collect data on attendance in the Post-16 sector, attendance in English and maths is a well-publicised issue, with many colleges around the country having tried a range of approaches with differing levels of success as, anecdotally, attendance sits at around 80%.
So, what can FE providers do to improve attendance in English and maths? Below are some approaches which have been most successful.
1. It’s good to talk
Recently, I was told about a college who identified their lowest attending students and delegated 3-5 of these students to every member of staff in the college (including the Principal and executive team). Following this delegation, each staff member contacts ‘their’ students each day to ensure they are prepared and ready to attend college. Although challenging to maintain consistency with this, it certainly impacted attendance and the college are looking to continue this strategy into 2019/20.
2. Text to success
A connection with post-16 students resitting GCSEs has also been evidenced to improve attendance in the form of text messages. The UK Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) worked to extend work previously done by Harvard Business School and others to research whether simple, motivational text messages can positively impact attendance and student attitudes. In their small-scale study, they found that by sending texts such as ‘Keep up the hard work and keep improving’ or ‘well done, you've reached the mid-term break!’ increased attendance by as much as 7.3% and achievement by as much as 8.7%. Again, consistency could be an issue, but with many colleges already using systems which can automate texts, this can be an enormously efficient means of developing attendance.
3. Get by with a little help from your friends
As an extension of this text programme, researchers also paired students up and ensured that they were ready for their next E&M session. This may seem like an educational utopia to some but making the right partnerships in lessons (with or without texts) can make an enormous difference. Setting project-based work in class and putting students in pairs or groups can make it enormously difficult to miss sessions as it is a friend or vocational ally that is being let down, as opposed to just a teacher/lecturer/practitioner. This may not make a huge difference, but it will make some difference and this is surely a step in the right direction.
4. Tutor links
Although developing strong links with vocational practitioners is hardly reinventing the wheel, there is not always the consistency we would like (going both ways) when looking to improve attendance. Simple strategies like having vocational staff check registers 5-10 minutes into lessons and chasing up regular offenders via phone can work wonders when students realise they will be flagged for missing English and maths sessions. Something as simple as ensuring wrap-around timetabling (a vocational session, followed by English or maths, followed by a vocational session) and asking vocational staff to escort students to E&M sessions. This may seem a touch Draconian, but students soon realise that they will struggle to skip E&M sessions and attendances will start to climb.
5. Stick and carrot
Sanctions for non-attendees are well known, but what about rewards? How often do we take the time to celebrate the young people who are achieving 98, 99 or 100% attendance? The answer is generally ‘not often enough’. As hard as it can be to do this whilst looking at average attendances sometimes in the low 70s, it is vital that we reward high attending students not just to encourage others, but to celebrate their achievement and because it is the right thing to do. The reward doesn’t have to be anything lavish or expensive – a simple letter/text/phone call home will suffice or something as small as a chocolate bar or piece of stationary.
There is no silver bullet for the attendance issues in the Post-16 sector, but the right mixture of the above with the tried and tested methods currently being used should start to build better relationships with students, and this is ultimately what will see attendance increase.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of English and maths at Hartlepool College of Further Education. He has previously worked as an English teacher and Head of Department in KS3/4 and tweets @jonnykayteacher. He also regularly blogs at www.thereflectiveteacher.co.uk.