The term-time absence dilemma for school leaders

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:

It is a tough decision for headteachers to make – whether to authorise term-time absences or not. We look at what ‘exceptional circumstances’ mean and how headteachers are dealing with the new registration regulations

"Rare, significant, unavoidable and short", are what the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) identifies as the fundamental principles for defining "exceptional".

The union's leaflet, Guidance on Authorised Absence in Schools, aims to give some coherent guidance for headteachers struggling to find the balance between meeting attendance thresholds and maintaining relationships with parents.

The document contains clear, concise advice and the statement, "If an event can reasonably be scheduled outside of term time then it would not be normal to authorise absence", is a useful arbiter.
However, as the guidance points out, it has no statutory authority and heads continue to be faced with the responsibility of making these decisions themselves.

External pressure

The Education (pupil registration) England) (amendment) Regulations 2013 removed the reference to family holidays and extended leave and the threshold of 10 school days.

The changes caused some initial ripples of concern about interpretation, but few predicted fully the outrage, media attention and level of conflict that this change in wording would cause. Pressure groups have been formed and currently a test case is passing through the courts. Newspaper headlines highlighting controversial decisions have made some heads wary. However, the threat of Ofsted remains and attendance figures are a key factor in inspection judgements.

The NAHT guidance does point out that Ofsted is more anxious about recurrent absence than the odd term-time holiday. However, Ofsted will look more deeply into decisions if pupils are not attaining as they should and if attendance figures are down. The implication is that some schools can afford to be a little more lenient than others.

Lack of consistency

If some schools are more lenient, then lack of consistency can be one of the most frustrating aspects for parents, particularly where they have children in more than one school.

Elisabeth Carney-Haworth is headteacher at Torpoint Nursery and Infant School in Cornwall. She told Headteacher Update: "We are making decisions which may not necessarily be replicated across the country and surely they should be. It does not seem fair to parents that the decision could change because of where their child goes to school."

It is not just lack of consistency between schools. Local authorities also vary significantly in the extent to which they implement fines. According to a BBC survey of local councils, the number of fines issued has risen by 70 per cent since the legislation was brought in. In the period between September 2013 and July 2014 nearly 64,000 fines were issued.

Ms Carney-Haworth notes that their local authority does not have a policy of fining parents, whereas a neighbouring one does.

Laura Cichuta, headteacher of Abington Vale Primary School in Northampton, believes that her local authority is not picking up on unauthorised absences: "We have had some low-income families take term-time holidays and we haven't authorised them. As far as I'm aware they haven't been fined for this but we do warn them that they might be."

Joint decision-making

Schools are addressing this lack of consistency themselves by combining their efforts. At Torpoint, Ms Carney-Haworth has tried hard to ensure that parents don't receive mixed messages by working very closely with their partner junior school. She explained: "Both schools use the same absence request form. Where there are siblings in both schools we make a joint decision."

Abington Vale is part of Northampton Primary Academy Trust, a partnership of five local primary schools. The schools have jointly agreed their attendance policy. "We sat down together and worked it out so that there is consistency across the schools," explained Ms Cichuta. "We used examples of good practice and advice and information to put the policy together."

Being part of a group in this way also helps when making decisions: ''If we're not sure about anything and want to consult we will text each other to ask whether other schools would authorise or not. We do take individual circumstances into account but also want to send out the right message,"Ms Cichuta added.

Relationships

Primary school headteachers spend a significant amount of time developing relationships with parents. A major concern is how this relationship can be maintained while also fulfilling the expectations around the attendance legislation.

Ms Cichuta has appointed a family school worker who can quickly respond to any emerging problems: "We have a very good relationship with our families and know them really well. This definitely helps. We have explained to them what the government's approach is and what we have to do. We have an open and frank discussion and this gives us a basis for making these difficult decisions."

Torpoint, meanwhile, caters for a number of service families and Ms Carney-Haworth has found that the issues this raises have needed particularly careful handling. "I have spent time talking to these families explaining the changing situation," she explained. "I will always authorise absences for children to have time off for such family events as meeting their returning parent from the boat after a long deployment or to go to find a new school because they are being relocated."

Looking for alternatives

The Department for Education (DfE) was perhaps optimistic that greater flexibility in setting term times would extend the holiday window and so reduce prices.

Some schools have adopted slightly different patterns for their school year and this is one option that the NAHT suggests in its guidance. It does require, however, that local schools cooperate together to ensure that parents aren't faced with the dilemma of taking one child out legitimately but not another.

One school that has taken a proactive approach to limiting the term-time debate damage is Bishop Bronescombe CE School in St Austell. Headteacher Katie Dalton and her governors made the decision to put their five INSET days together and add them onto the summer half-term holiday.

"This was seen as the most popular time of year for families requesting leave," Ms Dalton explained.
Providing this additional seasonal opportunity for holiday time not only helped their families but improved their attendance figures too. After consultation, Ms Dalton found strong support among her parents for the new arrangements. "Parents feel supported by the school and that we listen to their needs and value their views," she added.

Bronescombe does not conduct all their professional development days during this time, as staff are happy to use days in their own holidays instead. "We find the increased flexibility works to the benefit of everyone," Ms Dalton said. "We can respond more quickly to new legislation, pupil or curriculum needs. If an INSET days falls when other schools aren't open we arrange childcare for our staff too."

In partnership

The NAHT guidance might assist schools but it is still open to interpretation. Ms Carney-Haworth does not feel that the new guidance really solves the problem: "The fact that we know that some parents are trying to challenge the legislation in the courts does not help us in any way either. We want our children in school, we all know that they should be here, but we need to achieve this in partnership with our parents, not in opposition."

Further information

To download the NAHT guidance, visit http://bit.ly/12Wd4g0


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