Term-time absence

Written by: HTU | Published:

How are the tighter rules surrounding parents pulling their children out of class for holidays and other events affecting schools? Amy Cook takes a look.

In September 2013, the government changed the regulations on term-time leave of absence for school pupils. Headteachers could previously grant up to 10 days’ leave in “special circumstances”, but now they may only grant leave in “exceptional circumstances”. 

Schools and local authorities can issue penalty notices to parents who break the rules, with fines of £60 per-pupil, per-parent. If parents refuse to pay, the school or local authority can take the case to court, which may result in a fine of up to £2,500 or a three-month jail term. The government says that all children should be in full-time education, and absence harms a child’s attainment. 

So how are the new regulations affecting school leaders? Issues relating to term-time leave certainly appear to be on the agenda for members of The Key. Our article on how schools should respond to term-time requests for holiday leave was the seventh most popular in the six months from October 2013 to March 2014. It ranked higher than articles on the upcoming reforms to SEN provision and the new primary curriculum.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, school leaders’ interest in this topic increased when the regulations took effect. The figures for those looking for guidance on term-time absence in the autumn term doubled compared with those for the summer term. 

And it seems to be a more pressing issue for primary schools: our members in primary settings were 28 per cent more likely to read about term-time absence over the last six months than their secondary counterparts. This may reflect the widely accepted and well-evidenced view that good progress at primary school is essential for future attainment.

One purpose of the 2013 amendments was to discourage family holidays in term time, and the education secretary has criticised travel companies that increase their prices during school holidays. Are school leaders in less prosperous areas, where families might feel the pinch of higher holiday prices more, seeking more guidance on implementing the new rules than their counterparts in more affluent areas?

For the autumn 2013 period, we compared our data on how likely members were to look at an article about term-time leave, with the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) in their schools. We discovered some intriguing results. 

Leaders in schools with above-average levels of FSM eligibility were actually the least interested in articles on term-time absence. Members in schools with the lowest proportion of pupils receiving FSM were 1.5 times more engaged with this topic. 

There are some possible explanations. In schools with average or lower-than-average levels of FSM eligibility, parents may have higher lifestyle aspirations, with holidays abroad being more of an expectation. Our members in these schools might face more of a backlash against a less accommodating approach to term-time leave. For instance, the headteacher of a junior school in Sheffield with below-average levels of FSM eligibility told us that “evidence to date shows no decrease in term-time leave requests – parents take their children away even if unauthorised”.

Leaders in these schools may need more support with communicating the new policy and convincing parents of its importance. 

A further possibility might be that families in more deprived areas cannot afford holidays even in the off-peak season. Yet the overall absence rate for this demographic is above the national average. Children claiming FSM missed 7.6 per cent of possible school sessions in the 2012/13 academic year, compared to 4.7 per cent for non-FSM pupils. Are schools with higher proportions of FSM already better versed in the problem of unauthorised absence, and therefore less in need of guidance?

The executive headteacher of a Teaching School in Trafford told us that parents in such areas often have low expectations of education, which can sometimes be attributed to their own bad experiences of school. To tackle this mindset, she has insisted for some time (prior to the new regulations coming into place) that parents talk to her, and to the school’s education welfare officer, before applying for term-time leave for their children. 

For schools such as this, the government’s stricter policy only rubber-stamps strategies that leaders were implementing anyway.

Who else is looking for guidance on term-time absence? Those in schools with lower proportions of children speaking English as an additional language (EAL) were more likely to seek out articles on term-time absence than their colleagues in more diverse settings. And members’ interest levels across the country are far from uniform. Proportionally, school leaders in the South West showed double the level of concern with this topic over the last six months than leaders in the capital. In fact, articles on term-time absence have been of less interest to our London-based members than to school leaders in all other regions.

So is the new policy having the effect that the government intended? Our data shows that term-time absence is certainly high on the agenda for schools, and the Department for Education’s statistics show an increase in the number of penalty notices issued to parents for unauthorised absences. Schools are clearly aware of the regulations and their powers to enforce the rules.

However, these fines only address truancy. Children may, of course, still take time off school if they are poorly, and the government’s data shows that the proportion of absences due to sickness increased in 2011/12. 

A headteacher in Stockton-on-Tees commented to us that the new policy “will only encourage parents to lie about the reasons for their child’s absence”.

It will be interesting to see whether the figures for overall term-time absence decrease, or whether absence rates for holidays appear to decrease – but alongside a rise in absence for other reasons. In the short term, at least, it seems unlikely that those in the travel industry will lower their peak-season prices. For schools where absence is a concern, one solution may be to consider changing term dates to allow parents to take cheaper holidays without pulling their children out of class.  

  • Amy Cook is a researcher at The Key, a question-answering service that supports school leaders.

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