05 SES 04 A, Absenteeism
The phenomenon of “problematic school absenteeism” is increasingly recognized as a growing problem in the media, among decision-makers and in research. Although an overall picture of the total absence in Sweden (and whether this has increased) is missing, absence has become a problem that needs to be addressed in schools around Sweden (Skolinspektionen, 2016). Despite a variety of efforts by various actors (eg teachers, special educators, school health care and social services), the problem, is considered to increase in scope. Absence affects vulnerable students at the individual level with a great impact on studies and future prospects, and thus poses a significant threat to Sweden's commitment to school equality (SOU 2016: 94).
This resarch project is based on an initiative by teachers and management at a mid-sized year 7-9-school in a suburb of Gothenburg, Sweden that has identified absence as a central and growing problem. The school management estimates that, on average, five students in each class have a problematic absence and teachers at the school express uncertainty about how the phenomenon should be interpreted and how to meet this challenge. A collaborative project has been established between the school and the University of Gothenburg, in which teachers and other staff collaborate with researchers to map the school's work with students with problematic absences. This work will form the basis for the research project presented here.
The current school’s situation is by no means unique but can be said to represent a generally increased concern for students with school absences. The project is therefore a case study of the particular school's work with problematic absenteeism and, by extension, developing sustainable strategies for how other schools can work with absent pupils.
Research from several European countries and the US have reported on a growing interest in the problem of truancy and school absenteeism, aithough with weak evidence on frequence and effective measures (see eg. Reid, 2008). In general, research on student absenteeism has focused on individual students, with an overweight for the study of risk factors and causes of absence. Relatively little research has been devoted to the work and importance of schools in school absenteeism (Ekstrand, 2015). Significant research suggests that work on student absenteeism needs to be strategic, long-term and sustainable, and supported by collaborating actors within and outside the school (see, for example, Sälz, 2009; Reid, 2002). Absent students are a heterogeneous group and the risk of fatigue-effects at work is great if the responsibility is shifted to individual teachers (Ohlson et al., 2016). The project is therefore based on neo-institutional theory to analyze the actors (family, professional, routines, policy, technologies, etc.) that surround students with problematic absence based on concrete student cases (March & Olsen, 2006).
The project is organized in three phases, each of which is governed by a research question. The design of the three phases means that the project is initiated with a concrete mapping of different actors' work with absenteeism at school; which is used in a theoretically driven analysis; that ultimately leads to a concrete formation of an institutional framework for schools' work with problematic absence. Based on this design, our research questions are:
- What actors, relationships and recurring acts, controversies, explanatory models and experiences can be identified in the project's cases? (Phase 1)
- What is considered feasible, impossible, reasonable, justifiable, and where are the limits of what is perceived as legitimate action by the various actors in the work with problematic absence? (Phase 2)
- What strategic tools can be developed based on the results of the case study that can create sustainable preparedness for schools' work with problematic absence? (Phase 3)
The three phases of the project (mapping - analysis - developing tools) are organized around five cases, each consisting of a student who is or has been absent from school, as well as the actors who surround the student. By actors here is meant everything from parents, pupils, teachers, mentors and other student-supporting actors at the school (for example the so-called "Greenhouse" at the school), but also structuring factors such as organizational forms, routines, absence systems, rules, policy, media and law. We will map and analyze the (partly different) institutional logics and action repertoires that affect the actors' actions and perceptions in the work with problematic absence in relation to the five cases. In each case, interviews and document collection (the document collection is started within the framework of the ongoing collaboration project) are conducted to map the different actors, as well as the pupils, documents and perceptions relative to the absence. Next to concrete documents and perceptions, the survey focuses on recurring patterns in order to lay the foundation for an analysis of which institutional logics and action repertoires govern and influence the various actors in the work on absenteeism. This can, for example, touch on controversies, measures, explanatory models and assumptions about absence. The parents, students and mentors included in each case are also asked to make structured diary entries. The purpose of the diaries is to collect data that capture changes in the work with absenteeism over time and place, for example with regard to which students are affected and what measures are taken (eg attendance systems, registration, routines and practices such as home schooling), as well as the consequences of these, but also about how teachers, pupils and parents perceive of the measures taken. The qualitative analysis tool Nvivo is used to code the data material and analyzes are carried out with the support of a neo-institutional conceptual apparatus. The material is examined on the basis of questions about which actions and perceptions appear to be possible and problematic in the work of the various actors. The focus is not only on the relationship between actors and the absent student, but also, given the project's neo- institutional approach, on relations between actors.
One possible outcome is that the actors follow partly different institutional logics and thus have access to partly different action repertoires. For example, parents, school management and teachers can share the goal of getting the student to school, but differ in defining causes and actions because they have different roles, goals, preferences and incentive structures. Our initial analyses point in this direction, but futher in depth analysis is needed. In the third phase, results and analyzes from the first two phases are used to develop strategic tools that can improve the school's (as well as other schools') institutional conditions to meet and make visible the often invisible category of students with problematic absence. Through analyzes of the actors 'actions, the phase aims to identify critical factors in schools' work with problematic absenteeism. The strategic tools are formulated in the form of empirically/theoretically grounded questions that schools need to seek answers to, as well as empirically identified opportunities and risks that different answers can potentially give rise to. The project assumes that such a set of strategic tools will strengthen the readiness for a school in the work with problematic absenteeism. Since the problem is perceived as large and growing, the risk is otherwise that schools use fast, short-term and often costly solutions. Asking the right questions and being aware of opportunities and risks with different answers can equip different actors to better understand and help students with problematic absence in a more sustainable way.
Ekstrand, B. (2015). What it takes to keep children in school: A research review. Educational Review, 67(4), 459-482. March, J. G., & Olsen, J. P. (2006). Elaborating the “new institutionalism”. The Oxford handbook of political institutions, 5, 3-20. Maynard, B. R. et.al (2012). Who are truant youth? Examining distinctive profiles of truant youth using latent profile analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 41(12),1671-1684 Ohlson, M., Swanson, A., Adams-Manning, A., & Byrd, A. (2016). A Culture of Success--Examining School Culture and Student Outcomes via a Performance Framework. Journal of Education and Learning, 5(1), 114-127. Reid, K. (2002). Truancy: Short and Long-term Solutions. London: Routledge. Reid, K. (2008). The causes of non‐attendance: an empirical study, Educational Review, 60(4), 345-357. SOU 2016:94 (2016). Saknad! Uppmärksamma elevers frånvaro och agera. Skolinspektionen (2016). Omfattande frånvaro. En granskning av skolors arbete med omfattande frånvaro. Stockholm: Skolinspektionen. Sälzer, C. et. al (2012) Predicting adolescent truancy: The importance of distinguishing between different aspects of instructional quality. Learning and Instruction 22, 311-319.
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