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Hinds: How we plan to tackle persistent absence

Schools Week readers will know as well as I do that if a child misses just one day of school, that is one day’s worth of education lost.

If it’s more than one day, those losses will be cumulative and the effect on long-term prospects could not be more damaging.

Covid was an unprecedented global event that somewhat changed societal attitudes around sickness and school attendance.

Prior to the impact of the pandemic, absence had been gradually declining, from 6 per cent in 2009-10 to 4.7 per cent in 2018-19.

But just like countries around the world we have been dealing with an increase in absence due to this attitude shift.

Although a lot of work has gone into reversing the effects of that – around 380,000 fewer pupils were persistently off school last year than the year before – there are still far too many children who are regularly absent. 

That’s far too many children who risk failing to make the most of their potential.

‘Attendance data will be key’

Schools and teachers are working hard to support pupils and their attendance and great examples of exemplary practice are evident.

We are now introducing new regulations and making revised attendance guidance statutory to boost effective early interventions and a support-first approach. 

Most schools – 89 per cent – already share daily registers voluntarily and our attendance data system is a world leader, transparently publishing attendance to local authority level each fortnight.

From September 2024, we’ll be asking all state schools to share their registers on a daily basis.

Using our free and secure dashboards all schools, trusts and councils will have near real-time, pupil level data at their fingertips. 

This information will be key to tackling any persistent absence problems and will enable school leaders to support children who are in danger of becoming missing in education more effectively. 

This will also let them see the bigger picture and, with the new national comparison functionality for the data, how their attendance data compares locally and nationally, including by vulnerable cohorts.

‘We will modernise attendance codes’

We are determined that pupils with SEND and mental health issues struggling with attendance in particular don’t fall between the cracks.

The updated guidance will expect schools, local authorities and wider services to work together to support these pupils with their individual needs and to take early action to put in place a plan of support.

We are also modernising the attendance codes used on school registers.

This will particularly benefit pupils with SEND or on free school meals, for example enabling us to track those pupils who use part-time timetables, or preventing misuse of ‘code B’ which is for education that is off-site.

I know I don’t need to tell you that an important cause for unauthorised absence is parents taking their children out of school for holidays – and we have to strengthen the disincentives.

At the moment there’s something of a postcode lottery, which sees parents in some areas getting fined for doing this, while others aren’t.

The new guidelines will introduce a more consistent penalty system.

Across England, a fine will be considered when a child has missed 10 or more sessions unauthorised over a ten week period. 

Fines will only be used where support has been tried and not engaged with, or where support wouldn’t have been appropriate in the first place (eg, absence for term time holiday).

‘Why we’re raising absence fines’

The penalty will now be £80 if paid within twenty-one days, or £160 after, and there will be no early payment discount for a repeat offender.   

But we also know that a bigger effect than term time holidays has been an increase in illness-related absence.

Obviously all children will be off school sick occasionally, and some must be off, sadly, for extended periods.

But we want to help parents think about avoidable absence, and minimise it – so we are continuing our social media and radio campaigns, pointing to NHS guidance.

Alongside better data and a consistent fairer enforcement framework, schools also need more support.

So I’m delighted that Rob Tarn, leader of Northern Education Trust and founder of our first attendance hub, is taking up the role of national attendance ambassador.

He’ll be working with schools and school leaders to boost attendance, mainly through sharing the kind of best practice on school culture, data and systems that you see working across our 32 attendance hubs.

I know schools are going to find his ideas well worth listening to.

Children get one chance at their education. Even relatively small amounts of unnecessary absence have a discernible effect on attainment, as well as on participation in all else that school has to offer every day.

Persistent absence denies them the future they could and should have. These new measures will put in place the means to make sure they get it.  

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