Exclusive:'Making a difference': How a new army of support staff could turn the tide in Scotland's school absence crisis

Support workers are improving communication and building confidence

Across much of Scotland, a new army of specialist workers is being recruited to help convince a lost generation of youngsters to return to school.

The council staff, often employed using targeted funding from the Scottish Government, are becoming the frontline in the battle to reverse attendance rates which plummeted in the wake of the Covid pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.

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East Lothian Council recently advertised vacancies for eight newly-created “education outreach officer” posts.

Their job will be to provide “bespoke support to identified learners to improve their school attendance, engagement, attainment, and achievement”.  In nearby Edinburgh, no fewer than 58 schools have chosen to use funding to employ a “pupil support officer” focussed on attendance.

It comes as shocking figures published in March showed almost a third of school pupils in Scotland are now persistently absent, meaning they miss more than 10 per cent of sessions.

North Lanarkshire was one of three areas where more than half of secondary pupils were persistently absent last year.

However, the local authority now hopes to be turning the tide, thanks in part to the recent recruitment of 18 family engagement support assistants (FESAs).

Over the last year-and-a-half, the team in North Lanarkshire has worked with 370 children, with most showing an increase in their attendance rates afterwards.

Attendance rates in the area in the month of December were 5.21 per cent higher in 2023 compared to the same month in 2022. Katie Dowd is one of North Lanarkshire’s FESAs, working with families in the Coatbridge area.

She said: “So far, I have found it tends to be the same reason amongst the families I have had contact with, for example most of the families are living in poverty, parents have no routine which impacts on the children having no routine.

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“A lot of children are staying up late watching television, iPads, playing computer games therefore are too tired in the morning to get up for school and parents don’t feel they are strong enough to follow through with getting them up and it is just easier to let them stay off then it becomes a vicious cycle as they continue to turn day into night.

“Many of the children either have a diagnosis or are awaiting a diagnosis of autism/ADHD which parents feel can be a barrier in them getting to school.

“Schools provide support for children with additional support needs but often the most disadvantaged families are not sure how to start discussions with schools about this, particularly if a diagnosis has not been made.”

Ms Dowd said FESAs can help provide a bridge between these families and the school, starting the conversation that leads to the children getting the support they need.

“Primary school children tend to be off due to health reasons; a lot have asthma so have been off a lot as the poor weather has impacted their asthma,” she said.

“Again communication with the school can be an issue for some parents and FESAs help with this.”

The officer also said the mental health of parents is often a key concern.

“Many are suffering with severe anxiety and have done for a very long time which then has an impact on their children’s anxiety,” she said.

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“I have found that the parents that suffer with mental health issues and anxiety effects them so much that they can’t even answer the phone, therefore I have been able to make contact with them through a text message that they will often respond too once I have explained who I am and what my role is.

“This has made a huge difference with contact, and it has then allowed me to arrange home visits this way.”

Ms Dowd added: “I am currently working with two families that attendance has been so low they have gone to the Children’s Reporter.

“I have weekly visits to these young people to build a positive relationship which has resulted in them opening up to me and slowly building a plan together to get them back in school.

“I am also that person for the parents to have a chat with, get things off their chest. Parents have become very open and honest within a short period of time; this is very rewarding as I know I am making a difference to their lives.

“A lot of parents are feeling pressured by schools and will often not answer the phone to them as they are aware it will be a negative conversation.

“Parents are therefore asking for my support to go between home and school.

“Other success has involved referring families to the tackling poverty team when they have been worried over their finances and how they are going to manage.

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“I have also been in contact with housing as I have some families where attendance is an issue due to where they are living.

“For example if there is anti-social behaviour and police disturbances which is keeping the children up at night, this is having a huge impact on how well they sleep and therefore too tired to get to school in the morning.”

Councillor Michael McBride, education convener in North Lanarkshire, said the development of family engagement support assistants is part of an overall plan to improve attainment and attendance.

“Although only six months into the project, initial evaluation is very positive and indicates that more than half of children and young people who have engaged are now recording markedly improved attendance,” he said.   A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are providing more than £520 million this parliamentary term through the pupil equity funding scheme as part of our £1 billion Scottish Attainment Challenge.

“This is empowering headteachers and local authorities to take creative and innovative approaches to supporting learners, boosting attendance and closing the poverty related attainment gap.”



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