Crackdown on School Absence: A Comprehensive Overview for Parents

Sara Spinks 5 April 2024 4 min read
Crackdown on School Absence: A Comprehensive Overview for Parents  feature image

In England, the issue of unauthorised school absences has been a persistent concern, exacerbated by the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To address this challenge, the Department for Education (DfE) has implemented stringent measures Working together to improve school attendance aimed at improving school attendance and reducing instances of unapproved absences in their latest statutory guidance, which applies from 19 August 2024.

The latest development in this ongoing effort is a significant increase in fines for parents who withdraw their children from school without prior authorisation. This is headline-grabbing news, but what does the latest guidance actually say beyond this headline, and the key question is, does this action go far enough, or is it robust enough to alleviate the persistent issue of unauthorised absence?

Understanding the Context: Rise in Unauthorised Absences

The pandemic-induced disruptions to schooling have resulted in a notable increase in unauthorised absences across England. Data from the DfE indicates that during the 2022-23 academic year, nearly 400,000 penalty notices were issued to parents for unauthorised school absences - a sharp rise compared to pre-pandemic levels. Recognising the detrimental impact of prolonged absences on students' educational attainment and overall well-being, the government has intensified its efforts to address this issue. But are they truly getting to the heart of the issue?

New Fines Structure: What Parents Should Know

Effective immediately, fines for unauthorised school absences will commence at £80, with the potential to escalate to £160 if not settled within the prescribed timeframe. Under the revised guidelines, a fine must be considered if a child misses five school days due to an unapproved absence. This updated structure aims to standardise penalties nationwide and ensure consistent enforcement of attendance regulations.

Authority to Issue Fines: Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities

Fines for unauthorised absences can only be issued by designated individuals, including headteachers, deputy or assistant heads, local authority officers, or law enforcement personnel. While schools are encouraged to collaborate with parents to improve attendance through proactive measures, persistent unauthorised absences may necessitate issuing a fixed penalty notice. This emphasises the importance of maintaining open communication channels between schools and parents to address attendance concerns promptly.

Rationale Behind Fines: Balancing Accountability and Support

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has highlighted the importance of fines as a deterrent against disrupting children's education and burdening teachers with additional catch-up responsibilities. However, whilst fines predominantly target parents opting for term-time holidays, it's crucial to acknowledge the broader socioeconomic factors contributing to absenteeism. As such, Barton advocates for a multifaceted approach that combines financial penalties with holistic support for families facing underlying challenges.

Whilst it’s great that Geoff advocates this, significant safeguarding issues also need to be looked at. The DfE's latest guidance focuses heavily on unauthorised absence. But...

What about the safeguarding & contextual safeguarding issues?

The guidance does focus on the development of ‘close and productive relationships with parents and pupils'. Consistent school attendance is critical for safeguarding the most vulnerable students and offers the optimal chance to recognise their needs and offer the necessary support. Studies have revealed correlations between consistent school absences and various external risks, such as involvement in criminal activities. According to data Education, children’s social care and offending: local authority level dashboard, Academic year 2019/20 – Explore education statistics, 81% of persistently absent children had received cautions or sentences for any offence, with 85% involved in serious violent offences.

The guidance advises all schools are expected to:

  • Support pupils and parents by working together to address any in-school barriers to attendance.
  • Where barriers are outside the school's control, all partners should work together to support pupils and parents to access any support they may need voluntarily. At a minimum, this should include meeting with pupils and parents at risk of persistent or severe absence to understand barriers to being in school and agree on actions or interventions to address them. This may include referrals to services and organisations that can provide support. These actions should be regularly discussed and reviewed together with pupils and families.

In cases of escalating absenteeism, schools must collaborate closely with Local Authorities and relevant partners to enhance support for affected students. Individualised support may involve mentoring, career guidance, personalised tuition, or alternative educational plans. For broader familial issues, a voluntary early help assessment may be necessary. If engagement in support is challenging, schools should conduct formal discussions with parents and, if applicable, the student. These discussions, led by the school's attendance champion, should outline the consequences of persistent absence while also addressing barriers to attendance and available assistance options.

Only at this point, if voluntary support has proven ineffective or has not been embraced, schools should collaborate with Local Authorities to take further action, which includes implementing formal support measures like attendance contracts or education supervision orders. If voluntary support fails to produce results and is likely to impact parental behaviour, a Notice to Improve or penalty notice will be issued. If safeguarding concerns arise, especially in cases of severe absence, support involvement is escalated through statutory children's social care. Legal action against parents is pursued as a last resort, potentially through prosecution or securing community or parenting orders to ensure engagement with support.

Critiques and Alternative Approaches

Despite the government's emphasis on escalating fines, some critics argue that punitive measures may not effectively address the root causes of absenteeism. From the Education Policy Institute (EPI), Emily Hunt advocates for a more nuanced approach, emphasising investment in mental health provision, support for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and a comprehensive strategy to combat child poverty. Hunt's stance underscores the need for holistic interventions that address the underlying socioeconomic factors influencing attendance.

Whilst the new guidance does state that it should be read alongside the statutory guidance documents on children missing education, supporting pupils with medical conditions at school, education for children with health needs who cannot attend school, suspensions and exclusions, alternative provision, and , Keeping Children Safe in Education there is a real missed opportunity here to integrate guidance into one comprehensive document fully.

As a former headteacher in an inner-city school with the majority of pupils from migrant families, there was always an issue with families suddenly leaving the country to visit relatives aboard, often at very short or no notice. The safeguarding risks associated with such actions can be huge, e.g. we’ve have seen photographs of children holding rifles or had incidents of underage girls being taken to be married or for the purposes of FGM there are a myriad of activities and situations which are illegal or socially inappropriate in the UK but are not seen as such in other areas of the World. (Though there are key UK statutory procedures in place to stop the departure of such children if there are indicators such illegal activity is going to happen.)

I worked closely with families and repeatedly reiterated the need to communicate with the school to find compromise solutions. This enabled families to take leave by attaching up to 10 days on either side of a school holiday. Having an open dialogue about the legal element of school attendance on parents and ensuring that parents knew their responsibilities, as well as the responsibilities of the school, we managed to cut unauthorised extended leave significantly, as well as establish a mechanism of ‘keeping in touch’ whilst families were away.

So, do I think that by raising fines, there would have been a reduction in families taking leave? Not at all, because if a family need to travel to visit a sick relative, they go, and no amount of fining would have stopped this.

Ensuring Fairness and Support: A Collaborative Effort

Maintaining a balance between accountability and support is essential, ensuring that fines are a last resort after exhausting efforts to improve attendance through proactive measures and targeted interventions. Authorities must prioritise support for families facing barriers to attendance due to health issues, socioeconomic challenges, or other extenuating circumstances. By fostering collaboration between schools, local councils, and parents, stakeholders can work together to create a supportive educational environment conducive to students' success.

The Path Forward: Embracing Collaboration and Innovation

As the educational landscape continues to evolve, stakeholders must remain adaptive and innovative in their approaches to address absenteeism effectively. This includes leveraging technology to monitor attendance trends, implementing targeted interventions to support at-risk students, and fostering partnerships between schools, local authorities, and community organisations. By working collaboratively and embracing evidence-based practices, stakeholders can drive meaningful progress in improving school attendance and enhancing educational outcomes for all students.

Conclusion: A Call to Action for Collective Responsibility

Addressing unauthorised school absences requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders—schools, local authorities, parents, and policymakers. While fines serve as a deterrent, they must be accompanied by comprehensive support mechanisms to address the underlying factors contributing to absenteeism. By prioritising collaboration, innovation, and targeted interventions, stakeholders can create a supportive educational environment where every child has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.

In conclusion, the escalation of fines for unauthorised school absences may be represented as a step towards improving attendance and safeguarding students' educational attainment. However, it's essential to recognise that fines alone are not a panacea for addressing absenteeism. Instead, they should be part of a broader duty of care strategy encompassing proactive support, targeted interventions, and collaborative partnerships. By working together towards a shared goal of enhancing school attendance, stakeholders can create a more inclusive and supportive educational system that benefits all students.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher

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