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Torfaen schools’ attendance remains low since Covid

SCHOOL attendance in Torfaen has failed to recover from the Covid pandemic – a problem common across the country, councillors have been told. 

In Torfaen the borough council has launched a ‘Not In, Miss Out’ campaign to highlight the benefits of regular attendance at school, but also has in place a system to issue fines to parents whose children aren’t going to school. 

Andy Rothwell, the council officer responsible, told councillors: “Attendance is still not where we want to it to be and back to pre-pandemic levels, but that is no different to any other local authority or the national picture.” 

Cwmbran Fairwater councillor Rose Seabourne, a former headteacher, asked if there had been an improvement in attendance when councillors were updated on how the council is responding to its education service being placed in special measures, by inspectors Estyn, in March last year. 

The Labour member also asked for an update on exclusions and said: “It is so important – if you’re not in school you’re not able to learn.” 

Mr Rothwell didn’t provide any figures but said the council has taken “strong steps to improve attendance” and claimed a “significant improvement” in the past three or four months. 

He said, along with the publicity campaign, a new attendance strategy is being produced and the council is awaiting new guidance from the Welsh Government due in September and materials it will share with schools. 

Education chief Andrew Powles said school exclusions “are still too high” and said work is taking place across the Gwent region to address this while the council monitors exclusions and “challenges the school if we think they are inappropriate”. 

He said the council recognises excluding pupils can be necessary and it then aims to work with the children and their families to “make sure they get the right support”. 

Labour cabinet member David Daniels said he would like the council’s post-inspection action plan, which it was required to produce in response to the critical report, make greater reference to increased pastoral care for pupils to address problems with attendance.  

The Cwmbran Pontnewydd councillor said he feared problems could be dismissed as “the impact of the pandemic” and said “it’s important to get behind what that actually means.” 

Mr Powles said he agreed that action was needed and it is addressed in the plan. 

In response to the Estyn report the council brought its education department together with social services to create a children and families directorate, headed by social services chief Jason O’Brien. 

Pontnewydd Labour councillor Stuart Ashley asked how the council was giving support to parents who are carers of pupils with additional learning needs (ALN), since the departments were brought together, and said he thought it is something the council is “doing a bit better”. 

Mr Powles said there was considerable work related to new ALN standards and the council and schools now seek “more open dialogue” with children and families. 

In response to the report the council has increased the support it and the Gwent Educational Achievement Service offers to school as well as how performance is scrutinised and Mr O’Brien said there had been “significant changes within the education service in the local authority”. 

Since the inspection Welsh medium Ysgol Gymraeg Gwynllyw, in Pontypool, has been removed from special measures, in March this year, though it will continue to benefit from additional support, while Cwmbran High remains in the category. It has appointed a new deputy head. 

Estyn has also completed inspections at seven primary schools during the past 12 months, with five requiring no follow up reports, and Mr O’Brien said there is no indication there will be adverse finding when the two outstanding reports are published. 

Council deputy leader Richard Clark, the cabinet member for education, said he was pleased at the feedback he has had from heads and teachers: “Since October they have told me x, y and z have begun to feel real. That is more than words written on a page when I get headteachers and staff saying that to me in person.” 

The Croesyceiliog councillor said the authority’s ambition shouldn’t just be about “getting out of special measures” but ensuring “we don’t go into special measures ever again”. 

He said the council had been “naïve” to be taken by “surprise” at being placed in the failing category last March, with two schools in special measures, but he is now “far more confident in the information I’m given and that it is being fact checked by heads and through scrutiny.” 

Llantarnam independent councillor Jason O’Connell said teaching staff “are at breaking point” and wanted to know what is being done to support them. 

Mr Powles said the authority doesn’t ask schools to provide anything, such as self-evaluation reports, they wouldn’t normally produce and added heads are currently in industrial action, short of a strike, meaning they will not undertake additional work.

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