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Attendance tsar: Bigger absence fines won’t solve problem

Increasing fines for parents whose children skip school will do nothing to cut unauthorised absence, the government’s new attendance tsar said, as he outlined his ambitions for the role.

Ministers announced this week that they will increase the penalties for the first time since 2012 to £80, bringing them in line with inflation over the past 12 years.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said the move – which will come into force in September – was part of her department’s “next step to further boost attendance” across England.

‘We need to convince parents’

But, after being named the government’s “national attendance ambassador” yesterday, Rob Tarn predicted that the changes would not stop rule-breaking parents from taking their children on term-time holidays.

“Parents have spent 10, 20, 30 times more on the holiday than that fine’s going to be. That’s not the point,” he told Schools Week.

“I presume that the higher the [fine] number gets, the more families will see it as more of a deterrent. You could theoretically go on forever, but you’d be talking about fines very few parents could even afford to pay – and what are you going to do then? Take them to court?

“For me, it’s about how we convince parents that the most important thing they can do is send their child to school every day.”

‘Fines consistency helpful’

As part of the changes, a national “framework” governing absence fines will also be introduced, amid concerns about inconsistencies from area to area.

Tarn, chief executive of the Northern Education Trust, believes this will stop the system being a “postcode lottery”.

“That lottery has caused problems,” he said. “It’s not the amount of money that will make any difference – it’s having the consistency everywhere that’ll be helpful.

Gillian Keegan

“Historically, you could be in one local authority where there are so many days of unauthorised absence and drive a mile down the road to an area with a different level.”

Tarn launched the first “attendance hub” at one of his schools, the North Shore Academy in Stockton-on-Tees, in 2022.

As part of a truancy crackdown, the secondary carried out 6,000 home visits in a year, bringing attendance to “almost 94 per cent for a school that was 70 per cent pupil premium”.

He said the idea behind the hubs scheme was to point leaders in the direction of others who faced similar challenges and had “managed to crack attendance”. There are now 32 hubs supporting 2,000 schools nationwide.

‘Attendance partnerships for all’

Part of his new job will be to “find the very best examples” that can “become a template for future partnerships”, the trust leader said. To help with this, he will visit the schools offering the service to “capture what’s working well”.

Tarn would eventually “like to see all schools have partnerships for better attendance”.

“I’m not sure that will fully happen and I’m not sure if there’s a wish for that to happen [in the Department for Education], but I can’t see harm being done – it can only do good,” he said.

“Historically, schools have come together to share best practice around teaching and learning, behaviour, provision for students with special educational needs – I don’t think we’ve ever come together just to talk about attendance.”

‘Pre-pandemic rates not enough’

Tarn said he had seen truancy rates improve in schools that have implemented “rigorous” systems and processes to tackle absences and in those that have created “a culture of aspiration” in which children safe.

The most effective primaries, meanwhile, have “built strong relationships with their families to understand their challenges [and] help overcome them”. Despite this, he stressed there is “no magic bullet”.

“A smaller part” of Tarn’s role will be to advise “on policy and the use of data to drive improvements in attendance”.

Last academic year, 22.3 per cent of pupils missed more than a day every fortnight, up from between 10 and 13 per cent before Covid.

Recent figures show “some green shoots of recovery, but we’d like it to go quicker”, Tarn noted. “What you hear said is that attendance is recovering slowly, but is still not back at pre-pandemic levels. I have a target that’s beyond that.

“Before Covid there were schools where attendance was unacceptably low … [and] returning to pre-pandemic levels in those schools isn’t enough because it wasn’t enough beforehand. I want to go further.”

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