Personalised text messages to parents could be used to help improve school attendance rates, as teachers struggle to re-engage children and their families after the disruption of Covid, according to experts.
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said there was a “national persistent truancy crisis” in England, with significantly more children now missing lessons compared with before the pandemic.
A range of measures, including family liaison workers and attendance officers, are already in place, but trials across the world suggest text messaging parents could be an effective and low-cost approach to boost attendance, said Elliot Major.
In a submission to the Commons education committee, which has launched an inquiry to find solutions to the pupil absence crisis, Elliott Major and his co-author, Andy Eyles of University College London, said evidence on how to reduce persistent absenteeism was weak.
They called for research to develop evidence-informed approaches and stressed the need for “genuine non-hierarchical, mutually respective relationships with parents” that require time to develop.
School staff already use text messages routinely to keep their parent body informed, but Elliott Major is proposing the use of more personalised messages on the back of a broader effort to build deeper relationships between schools and families.
“The reasons why so many children have not returned to school is varied and complex, but most troubling of all, some families appear to have lost their belief that attending school regularly is necessary for their children,” he said.
“I’m convinced that developing school-parent engagement plans would be a potential game-changer encouraging more children to attend school and enabling them to be better prepared to learn in classrooms.”
Recent research by FFT Datalab found that a third of 15-year-olds have been persistently absent from classrooms in England during the current school year.
Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – mainly those eligible for free school meals – were particularly prone to absence. Half of disadvantaged year-10 pupils were reported as persistently absent, missing at least 10% of school time, nearly double the rate of other students in the same year group.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Any strategies to improve attendance must be carefully considered, particularly the financial cost to schools and the impact on staff workload. In reality, this is not a problem schools can solve on their own. They require the support of parents, local authorities, and investment from central government.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are determined to continue driving up attendance and are offering targeted help for children who are regularly absent.
“This includes working with schools, trusts, governing bodies, and local authorities to keep children in the classroom, as well as providing guidance for schools on how best to communicate with parents.”