Press release

Primary school absence: government adviser calls for crackdown

The government’s expert adviser on behaviour has called for a crackdown on primary school absence.

  • Publishing reception absence data to help schools intervene earlier.

  • Overhaul of fine system for school absence to make it more effective.

  • Strengthening of the rules around term-time holidays

  • Extension of Charlie Taylor’s appointment as government adviser. Charlie Taylor, the government’s expert adviser on behaviour, today called for a crackdown on primary school absence to make sure it is not a problem later on in life.

Latest figures show that almost 400,000 pupils miss 15% of schooling a year - the equivalent of having a month off school.

Evidence shows that as children move up through the school system from primary school onwards, the number of children who are persistently absent grows - most significantly in the final years of secondary school.

By the time children have reached their mid-teens it becomes more difficult for parents and schools to get them to attend. Much of the work these children miss when they are off school is never made up, leaving them at a considerable disadvantage for the remainder of their school career. The majority of children whose parents are taken to court for poor attendance are in Years 10 and 11, but by this time it is often too late to solve the attendance problems.

Currently there is no nationally collected data on children’s attendance in nursery and reception, as school is not mandatory at this age. This means schools are not held to account for pupils’ attendance until they reach the age of five. Many schools do not take measures to improve attendance until their pupils reach statutory school age, but for some children this is already too late.

Children with low attendance in the early years are also more likely to come from the poorest backgrounds. These children are likely to start school already behind their peers, particularly in their acquisition of language and their social development.

Charlie Taylor has called for:

  • the government to publish data on attendance in reception along with local and national averages and this is considered when Ofsted inspects
  • primary schools analyse their data on attendance and quickly pick up on children who are developing a pattern of absence
  • primary schools focussing on supporting parents in nursery and reception who are failing to get their children to school.

Having worked in some of London’s toughest schools, Charlie Taylor was commissioned by Education Secretary Michael Gove to look at the issue of school attendance in the wake of the summer riots last year.

Publishing his independent review - ‘Improving attendance at school’ - he said:

School attendance has been steadily improving in the last few years, but there were still 54 million days of school missed last year.

Schools are aware of the consequences of poor attendance on their pupils’ attainment. Some schools go to great lengths to tackle attendance issues, and to see the absence rates decreasing is very promising. But more work needs to be done to reduce the number of pupils who are still persistently absent.

The earlier schools address poor attendance patterns, the less likely it is that they will become a long term issue. The best primary schools realise this and take a rigorous approach to poor attendance from the very start of school life.

There is also clear evidence of a link between poor attendance at school and low levels of achievement. Of pupils who miss between 10% and 20% of school, only 35% achieve 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths. But 73% of pupils who attend 95% of school achieve this.

The government has already taken action to improve school attendance. Last year, the government lowered the threshold at which children are defined as persistently absent to 15% or more of school time, so that schools could step in to tackle absence sooner - before the problem really takes hold. Previously, children who missed 20% of school were considered persistent absentees.

The main recommendations from the independent review, which the government has accepted, include:

  • Making data on attendance in reception classes available along with local and national averages - this fits with the government’s policy of giving as much information as possible about school performance.
  • Publishing national statistics on attendance for the whole year not just up until half term in the summer, as is currently the case. The exception to this would be for Year 11.
  • Asking Ofsted to set specific, timed targets for improving attendance in schools where it is low.
  • Encouraging all primary schools to analyse their data on attendance so that they can quickly pick up on children who are developing a pattern of absence including in nursery and reception.
  • Whilst there should be no outright ban on term-time holidays and with headteachers having the discretion, the government should toughen up the rules. If children are taken away for a two week holiday every year and have an average number of days off for sickness and appointments, then by the time they leave at 16 they will have missed an entire year of their schooling.

The government will in due course amend the Pupil Registration Regulations to make clear that schools should only give permission where there are exceptional circumstances. The latest figures show that term-time holidays remain a major reason for absence.

Parental sanctions for school absence

One of the last resorts for schools to deal with absence problems is to issue fines to parents. Currently if a headteacher decides to impose a fine, the parent has 28 days to pay a fine of £50; if they fail then it is doubled. After 42 days if the parent has not paid then the local authority has to withdraw the penalty notice, with the only further option being for local authorities to prosecute parents for the offence.

More than 32,600 penalty notices for school absence were issued to parents last year, and more than 127,000 have been issued since introduction in 2004. However, around half went unpaid or were withdrawn.

Whilst independent research shows that over three-quarters (79%) of local authorities said that penalty notices were ‘very successful’ or ‘fairly successful’ in improving school attendance, local authorities feel court action is often a long-winded process that achieves very little.

In 2010, out of 9,147 parents found guilty by the courts, only 6,591 received a fine or a more serious sanction. The average fine imposed by the court was £165. Education Welfare Officers report that, within certain groups of parents, the word has spread that prosecution for poor attendance is a muddled process in which there is a good chance of getting off without sanction.

Fines for school absence were introduced by the previous government in 2004 and the levels of the fines have not been revised since then. In comparison to other offences, the fines for school absence are relatively low:

  • Parking fines range from £80 to £130 and if paid within 14 days it is reduced by 50%.
  • Speeding fines are £60 if paid within 28 days plus three points added to your driving licence, after which it doubles to £120 and registered in court as a fine.
  • Littering, graffiti and flyposting offences attract fines up to £80, reduced if paid within a certain timeframe.

Charlie Taylor has recommended a toughening up of the system by increasing the fines. The government has accepted this recommendation and from September 2012, headteachers will be able to impose a fine of £60 (a £10 increase) on parents whom they consider are allowing their child to miss too much school without a valid reason. If they fail to pay within 28 days it will double to £120 (a £20 increase), to be paid within 42 days.

Charlie Taylor has also recommended that once the fine has doubled, the money should be recovered automatically from child benefit. Parents who do not receive child benefit and fail to pay fines would have the money recovered through county courts.

Charlie Taylor said:

We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine. It means the penalty has no effect, and children continue to lose vital days of education they can never recover.

Recouping the fines through child benefit, along with other changes to the overall system, will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give head teachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part.

The government will consider this recommendation further and work with other government departments to explore ways to make the payment of penalty notices swift and certain.

Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, responding to the report, said:

We must do everything to improve school attendance so that all children benefit from good teaching. Successive governments have focussed overwhelmingly on tackling truancy amongst older children. We now need a fundamental change in approach.

Improving the attendance of younger children at primary school will reduce the number who develop truancy problems when they are older.

We must also equip schools to tackle the minority of parents who do not heed that message. Sanctions are most likely to work if their effect is immediate and if they are simple to administer. I agree that the current penalty notice scheme should be simplified. I will work with my colleagues in the Government to explore ways to make the payment of penalty notices swift and certain.

Extension of Charlie Taylor’s appointment

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has also today extended the appointment of Charlie Taylor as the Government expert adviser on behaviour for a further year.

Notes for editors

  1. Copies of the independent review - ‘Improving attendance at school’ -along with the Government’s response can be found on the schools pages of the Department for Education (DfE) website.

  2. Absence figures for school year 2010 to 2011 are available on the research pages of the DfE website.

  3. Research on school attendance and its impact on attainment can be found on the DfE website.

  4. Latest figures on fines for school absence can be found on the schools pages of the DfE website.

  5. A report on the effective of fines for school absence - Investigating the use of Parental Responsibility Measures for School Attendance and Behaviour - can be found on the publications section of this website.

  6. Charlie Taylor has been a behavioural specialist for more than 10 years. He has taught every age group, from nursery to 16-year-olds, working in tough inner city primary and comprehensive schools. He is currently on secondment at the Department for Education as the Government’s Expert Adviser on Behaviour until April 2013.

Previously he was the headteacher of The Willows, a special school for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in West London. Within a year of joining, the school received an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report. He also worked as a freelance behaviour consultant, coaching teachers in behaviour management techniques, and holds regular workshops for parents. He lives in London and is married with three children.

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