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Absence fines rise and daily data mandatory from September

The government will raise fines handed to parents for unauthorised school absence by a third and force all schools to submit daily attendance data from September.

Parents are currently fined £60, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days, for unauthorised absences. Ministers said today they would increase for the first time since 2012 to £80 (rising to £160), bringing them in line with inflation over the past 12 years.

Guidance on how to tackle absences will become statutory from the beginning of next academic year, as will participation in the government’s daily attendance tracker, which scrapes data from schools’ electronic registers.

The guidance will include a national “framework” governing absence fines, amid concerns about inconsistency from area to area. Legislation to enact the changes will be introduced in Parliament tomorrow.

It means schools will be required to consider fines when children miss more than five days – or 10 half-day “sessions” – at school in 10-week period, a proposal already set out in a government consultation in 2022.

Writing for Schools Week, schools minister Damian Hinds said warned of a “postcode lottery, which sees parents in some areas getting fined for [unauthorised absence], while others aren’t”.

He added that persistent absence “denies [children] the future they could and should have. These new measures will put in place the means to make sure they get it”.  

Trust leader appointed attendance tsar

Ministers have also named an academy trust chief executive as their first attendance tsar. Rob Tarn, of the Northern Education Trust, set up the first “attendance hub” at the North Shore Academy. There are now 32 hubs nationwide.

Tarn will be tasked with working with schools and school leaders to “champion attendance, share effective practice, and support the ongoing development of the attendance hubs programme nationally”.

Today’s announcements mark the latest development in a government clampdown on absences, which remain stubbornly high after Covid lockdowns. Education secretary Gillian Keegan said attendance was her “number one priority”.

Last academic year, 22.3 per cent of pupils missed more than a day a fortnight, up from between 10 and 13 per cent pre-pandemic.

Ministers had already pledged to put attendance guidance on a statutory footing and make its daily register mandatory, but confirmed today both would happen from September 2024.

The attendance data will form what the DfE called a “new world-leading attendance data set that will help schools spot and support children displaying worrying trends of persistent absence or those in danger of becoming missing in education”.

Most schools have already signed up to share their data as part of a pilot, which has faced criticism from the Information Commissioner’s Office. Schools Week revealed in 2022 how the watchdog had raised numerous concerns about the “high-risk” pilot.

The ICO found ministers failed to properly assess the data protection risks of the tracker before its launch and misled schools about the involvement of the information watchdog.

‘Data dashboard’ for schools

Schools, trusts and councils will be able to access the data “via an interactive secure data dashboard” maintained by the DfE.

This will “allow them easy use of the data to not only spot pupils in need of support but also to understand how their attendance position compares locally and nationally so they can look at where they might need to drive improvements”. 

But pupil and school level data “will only be available for the relevant responsible body, school and the department for education”.

Absence fines, which were handed out in record numbers last year, will increase from a basic rate of £60 to £80, and guidance will be more prescriptive on when penalties must be considered.

Geoff Barton

But guidance will “clarify that fines should only be used where attendance support has been provided and not worked or been engaged with, or where support is not appropriate (eg, a term time holiday)”.

There will also be “no early payment discount for a repeat offender”, Hinds said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said it was “not unreasonable to increase the level of fines for unauthorised absence given that they have been fixed at £60 for several years”.

But it was “important to understand that these fines predominately relate to pupils who are taken out of school for term-time holidays”.

However, he said there was a “wider issue about absence relating to the growing number of children who suffer from anxiety and other mental health issues, families who are struggling to cope, and disengagement with education, which schools are endeavouring to address”.

“Schools need more help from the government in this work both in terms of the funding they receive and investment in local social care, attendance and mental health services.”

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