COMMENT: Breaking down barriers is the key to tackling school absenteeism

It's shocking to discover that almost two in every 10 secondary school pupils in Portsmouth fail to attend a day of school each fortnight. That's a big part of their education that they're missing out on.

But this is far from a simple issue. Absenteeism from lessons can have many causes, so it's good to hear that a  variety of different methods are being used in a bid to improve attendance. As part of the city council's Miss School, Miss Out campaign, a pilot project has seen a team of nurses deployed in Portsmouth to contact and challenge absent children and their families and try to get them to return to the classroom. Many may be off because of illness, but it could be that symptoms have been misread or the pupil is not unwell enough to warrant staying at home. Then there is the education aspect to try to prevent any recurrence of the absenteeism by dispelling myths around infection.

It seems to be working. Highbury Primary School, one of nine schools involved, has reported 586 fewer sessions of absence (a session is before or after lunch) this year compared to the previous year. Primary schools have been targeted so that good practice and the value of attending school are ingrained from an early age.

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Meanwhile Castle View Academy, the only secondary school involved in the pilot, has also seen a big  improvement in attendance. An attendance team sends a minibus to absent pupils’ homes each day if there has been no contact from parents.

Other methods used in the Portsmouth area include a therapy dog called Barney who comforts pupils who have been missing class because of issues such as anxiety or bereavement.

Then there's a red box project that offers free sanitary products, underwear and tights to girls who might otherwise miss lessons out of embarrassment or being unable to afford to buy such items.

Overall absence in Portsmouth is worse than the national average, as is the number of persistently truanting children. So identifying and then removing the barriers preventing children from regular school attendance is vital if those figures are to change.