Attendance – how tough are you?

Written by: HTU | Published:

If children do not attend in the first place, schools cannot even begin to raise their attainment. But how far should we go with punishing pupils and their parents? Suzanne O’Connell takes a look

Charlie Taylor’s report, Improving Attendance at School, caused quite a stir. To begin with he placed the blame for non-attendance at the door of primary schools. He accused primary schools of being too chummy with their parents at the expense of insisting that they refrain from taking term-time holidays. Instead he advocates a penal approach with fines that might be taken, ultimately, from child benefit.

This report is in true Charlie Taylor-style. A short, sharp document that does not hold back. In this article we take some of its key messages and listen to what headteachers and teachers have to say about them.

Catching them young

Mr Taylor points to the fact that there is no nationally collected data on children’s attendance in nursery and reception. Although school for this age group is not mandatory, it is perhaps particularly important for those with the poorest backgrounds.

Some schools, such as Jubilee Park Primary in the West Midlands, already warn parents that they will lose their nursery place if they do not attend regularly. Jubilee Park is one of the schools mentioned in the report for its exemplary practice.

Headteacher Heidi Conner ensures that every parent understands from the start: “If attendance at nursery is poor we warn parents that their child might be taken off roll. It’s very rare that we have to do this, but we do if necessary.”

Sarah Adams, the PSHE co-ordinator at Peatmoor Community Primary School in Swindon, thinks that perhaps in some cases this more punitive approach is required.She explained: “Having worked for three years in the early years setting, and with children aged four and five-years-old, I feel it is imperative that no child misses out on any of their education, even though as this stage, school is not mandatory.

“During this year the ground rules are established, putting in place the foundations to all learning for the future. However, there are parents who do not see this as important. I experienced one situation where the child was consistently absent for at least half of every week during her first year at school.”

Mr Taylor suggests that children like this are already likely to have started school behind their peers in relation to acquisition of language and social development. For them consistent attendance is particularly important.

Primary schools and term-time holidays

What price a good relationship? Mr Taylor is critical of primary schools which take a softer line on term-time holidays in order to preserve relationships with parents. His report states: “Education welfare officers (EWOs) have frequently noted that primary schools value their good relationships with their parents, meaning they will authorise absence rather than challenge it.”

John Roberts, headteacher at Bewcastle Primary School in Cumbria, is proud of the relationship he has developed with his parents and feels it is important to recognise the circumstances that lead them to ask for leave: “Here in the small rural beauty of North Cumbria attendance isn’t a problem. Most of our children are from farming stock and they come in with all sorts of ailments and just ‘get on with it’, which is the culture around here.

“Our attendance has always been above the national average. That being the case, we don’t object to one of our families taking a holiday in term-time. It’s much cheaper for them and this is not a rich rural area. As a result we have built up over the years a good home-school relationship with our families – we help them and they certainly help us.”

It is not just about preserving relationships. The experience of a family holiday can be one that is cherished for years to come. Ms Adams bravely owns up to being a dissenting parent: “Before working in education myself, as a young mum, I did on one occasion take my own son out of school for a week for a family holiday when he was six-years-old.

“Now when asked by parents what I think and whether I mind if they take their child out of school for a family holiday, I feel torn between knowing what the government states, and begging the question of, ‘what is education?’

“Nobody knows other people’s circumstances and who’s to say that any child would not benefit from experiencing different forms of transport, climates, food and dress codes. This is education too.

“This conversation cannot be had without the knowledge that holiday prices shoot through the roof during school holidays. If I had my time over again, and knowing what I now know, I would make the same choice to take a holiday in term-time. The memories and experiences we gained during that time were priceless, ones we still talk about today nearly 15 years later.”

For any parent adamant about taking a term-time holiday there is a solution. Elective home education. The fact is that children do not have to go to school at all. In England, the responsibility for a child’s education rests with parents. Education is compulsory but school is not. This does seem to create mixed messages.

This is not to say that electing to educate your child at home should no longer be an option. However, the message that every lesson counts and introducing more punitive measures to get children into school seems a little contradictory in a system where parents have the option of not putting them there at all.

Parental sanctions

Mr Taylor does acknowledge that fining parents or taking them to court should be a last resort. However, he is critical of the judiciary system suggesting that is it open to abuse by parents. He considers that the process is too slow, taking up to six months, and that fines are neither high enough or enforced firmly enough.

He is critical of magistrates and their leniency and recommends that the system of fining should be made simpler for schools with fines doubling in cases of late payment and being recovered from child benefit if necessary. He opens up the possibility of academy chains, sponsors and individual schools being able to prosecute – at the moment only the local authority is able to do this.

Not everyone agrees that sanctioning is so effective. Rathbone, a youth charity, sponsors programmes that offer disengaged pupils an alternative form of education. Many of the pupils it caters for have fallen into bad habits of attendance. However, Peter Gibson, a spokesperson for the charity, does not think that sanctioning parents is necessarily the answer: “We would like to see more investment in programmes to motivate and engage children and young people rather than a concentration on merely punishing parents.”

Some charities and professional associations suggest that rather than punishing the adult for failing to get the child into school, fines have repercussions on children’s wellbeing. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “We’ve never been convinced that fines are the right approach. Effectively, you’re fining the child and their brothers and sisters, not the real offender. Better to work with the families to overcome the reason.”

And who will do the sanctioning? The NASWE (National Association of Social Workers in Education) seems resigned to the possibility that the service will be opened out. In its response to Mr Taylor’s recommendation that academies and others will be able to prosecute, the NASWE states: “This recommendation was probably to be expected, as it fits within the current government’s wider agenda for the direction they want academies to travel down.

“However, this could also be viewed as a fresh opportunity for local authorities to trade their prosecution services to academies or groups of free schools as part of a wider specialist welfare support package as it is the NASWE which holds all the national expertise in this area.”

What will be important is that these new enforcers of the prosecution service are carefully regulated and monitored and that practice is as consistent as possible across schools and regions.

A fine balance

There is a fine balance to achieve. On the one hand primary schools are exhorted to build relationships with their parents. Many recent strategies, such as Achievement for All, emphasise the need to have constructive dialogues. The onus is on the school to develop opportunities for learning at home and bring parents’ knowledge of their child to the school.

On the other hand we have criticism that schools might be taking this relationship too far, to the point where absence is condoned. A dilemma for schools who might find themselves inviting parents in with one hand and pushing them away with the other. They will need to find that middle ground – the approach that suites them and their communities, keeps them legal and is in the best interests of the children.

Download Charlie Taylor’s report from the Department for Education.

• Suzanne O’Connell is a former primary school headteacher.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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