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Wednesday, 12 August 2015 15:22

Unauthorised absence from school: an interesting morning for me

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I have had a very interesting morning, being used as an “expert” by the BBC on a circuit of Local Radio stations commenting on today’s news that the number of parents being taken to court over the unauthorised absence of their children from school is rising fast. 16,430 people in England were prosecuted for failing to ensure that a child went to school in 2014, up a quarter on 2013 when 13,128 people were taken to court.

My main sympathy is with the schools who have to police an increasingly difficult situation, but the reverse side of the coin is that the number of cases of persistent absence appears to be on the decline thank to the new tougher measures. The latest, I have been able to find show that in 2012-13, there was a sharp fall in persistent absence in that year from 433,130 to 300,895, down nearly a third after the regulations were tightened up.

The current rules are now quite explicit - You have to get permission from the headteacher if you want to take your child out of school during term time. You can only do this if: you make an application to the headteacher in advance and there are exceptional circumstances. The last of course begs the question “what are exceptional circumstances?”…..

The National Association of Head Teachers, in its guidance to heads, puts forward the following formula:

The decision to authorise absence is at the head teacher’s discretion based on
their assessment of the situation. Circumstances vary from school to school and
so there can be no absolute rules on this subject.
2. Term times are for education. This is the priority. Children and families have 175
days off school to spend time together, including weekends and school holidays.
Heads will rightly prioritise attendance. The default school policy should be that
absences will not be granted during term time and will only be authorised in
exceptional circumstances.
3. If an event can reasonably be scheduled outside of term time then it would not
be normal to authorise absence.
4. Absence during term time for holidays/vacations is therefore not considered an
exceptional circumstance.
5. Absences to visit family members are also not normally granted during term time
if they could be scheduled for holiday periods or outside school hours. Children
may however need time to visit seriously ill relatives.
6. Absence for a bereavement of a close family member is usually considered an
exceptional circumstance but for the funeral service only, not extended leave.
7. Absences for important religious observances are often taken into account but
only for the ceremony and travelling time, not extended leave. This is intended
for one off situations rather than regular or recurring events.
8. Schools may wish to take the needs of the families of service personnel into
account if they are returning from long operational tours that prevent contact
during scheduled holiday time.
9. Schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for students with special
educational needs or disabilities.
10. Families may need time together to recover from trauma or crisis.
11. It is acceptable to take a student’s previous record of attendance into account
when making decisions.
12. It is important to note that head teachers can determine the length of the
authorised absence as well as whether absence is authorised at all.
Any examples provided are illustrative rather than exhaustive. The fundamental
principles for defining ‘exceptional’ are rare, significant, unavoidable and short. And
by 'unavoidable' we mean an event that could not reasonably be scheduled at
another time.

 

Earlier this year, Fleetdown Primary School in Dartford got into hot water when the headteacher despairing of solving the problem, sent a letter to parents suggesting they could forfeit their place at the school if an unauthorised absence took place and was firmly put in her place by KCC. Of course, private schools have this option if parents break the contract they have with the school, and my sense is they have far fewer problems as a result.

Although I will often back parents on issues, I believe the responsibility for managing absence lies and must lie with the school so that parents should not stand on their self-assumed right to dictate when school attendance is necessary or the comparative value of educational experiences. I have a personal view that the root of this is a cultural issue in that education is too little valued by too many people in our society. The range of parental excuses is wide, from the skiing holiday in term-time, via the cultural value of Disneyland, though to a week for a family get together, or the day off for an important sporting or cultural event. The parents who cannot genuinely afford any holiday except in term-time is a much more difficult one, but this too soon becomes interpreted as school time off gets a  “better” holiday, and we are off again.

Meanwhile the school has to manage the fall-out of this. The child learns the lesson that school attendance is not important and that they do not have to follow rules; other families see this going on and so it will spread; and the school has the responsibility of having to divert resources to enable the child to catch up – more and more difficult if a number of children truant at different times.

However, the school has to be prepared to justify that the education missed is important. My particular gripe is post SATs in Year Six in primary school,, when too many schools cease getting children to learn and engage in other activities – some of educational value, others not. Too many children in the upper years of secondary school find the new constrained National Curriculum of limited relevance for them, if they are not on target to get examination success. In such cases I have more sympathy with the family, but the above still applies.

So, back to the figures. In the stage before prosecution, the norm is that parents are given a fixed fine, usually of £60 rising to £120 if unpaid within three weeks. Frankly, I think this is an irrelevance for many families who decide to go down this route, when balanced against a saving of several thousand pounds on an expensive holiday. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, Kent leads the way in the number of fines with Kent, the largest Local Authority in the country, issuing 5622 penalty notices in 2013-14, up sharply from 3994 in 2012-13. However, a closer look at 2012-13 the latest year for which I can find national figures, shows that apart from Kent, only one other Local Authority in the country, Leicester (not Leicestershire) had more than 2000 fines administered, out of a national total of 52,370.

To move on to prosecution, a more serious breach of the rules needs to have been incurred. This may mean refusal to pay the fine or perhaps and more often repeated unauthorised absence that the parent condones, or more sadly cannot force their child to comply.

The problem is that we are setting up an antagonistic situation by this large figure of prosecutions, including 18 custodial sentences, which is hardly likely to improve attitudes. No, I have no solution, except that this is an issue schools should let go of even though it places them in the position of policemen, working against rather than with these families. Otherwise, it is a downhill path. I finished my round of interviews talking alongside a headteacher of four schools who had a highly relaxed view of the issue, surely against the government regulation. All went well until I pointed out that of the two Local Authorities in the area covered by the radio station, one had just 36 fines, the 554, an example of the wide interpretation of this regulation across the county. Should we let it drift, or work to reverse the amount of unauthorised absence, which the figures appear to suggest.

Read 3923 times Last modified on Wednesday, 21 October 2015 09:53

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