Attendance policy requirements spelt out in new guidance

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

New school attendance policies must include details of how attendance data will be used, the point at which sanctions will kick in, and strategies for reducing persistent and severe absence.

The Schools Bill – unveiled in this week’s Queen’s Speech – will include a legal requirement for attendance policies, most probably from September 2023.

The DfE has published new attendance guidance this week (DfE, 2022a) that will apply from September this year. It is currently non-statutory, although schools can expect it to be given statutory status by September 2023.

It comes after the DfE published the outcomes of its consultation over the attendance proposals first published in January (DfE, 2022b).

This confirms that schools’ attendance policies “will be expected to cover attendance expectations, named attendance staff contacts, day-to-day attendance management processes, their strategy for using attendance data, their strategy for reducing persistent and severe absence, and the point at which sanctions will be used”.

The consultation response adds: “These expectations will apply on a non-statutory basis from the beginning of academic year 2022/23 to give schools time to implement them before legislation requires it.”

Downing Street this week added that the Schools’ Bill “will require schools to publish an attendance policy and will put attendance guidance on a statutory footing, making roles and responsibilities clearer” (2022).

The Bill will also require the creation of local authority “children not in school” registers, as well as creating a duty on local authorities to provide support to home educating families.

The guidance itself includes the following list of what school attendance policies must include:

  • The attendance and punctuality expectations of pupils and parents, including start and close of the day, register closing times and the processes for requesting leaves of absence and informing the school of the reason for an unexpected absence.
  • The name and contact details of the senior leader responsible for the strategic approach to attendance in school.
  • Information and contact details of the school staff who pupils and parents should contact about attendance on a day-to day-basis (such as a form tutor, attendance officer etc) and for more detailed support on attendance (such as a head of year, pastoral lead or family liaison officer etc).
  • The school’s day-to-day processes for managing attendance, for example first day calling and processes to follow up on unexplained absence.
  • How the school is promoting and incentivising good attendance.
  • The school’s strategy for using data to target attendance improvement efforts to the pupils or pupil cohorts who need it most.
  • The school’s strategy for reducing persistent and severe absence, including how access to wider support services will be provided to remove the barriers to attendance and when support will be formalised in conjunction with the local authority.
  • The point at which Fixed Penalty Notices for absence and other sanctions will be sought if support is not appropriate (e.g. for an unauthorised holiday in term-time), not successful, or not engaged with.

The thrust of the guidance is very much on identifying specific barriers for individual pupils or groups of pupils, including analysing data. Schools should “build strong relationships with families, listen to and understand barriers to attendance and work with families to remove them”.

Schools are expected to “monitor and analyse weekly attendance patterns and trends and deliver intervention and support in a targeted way to pupils and families. This should go beyond headline attendance percentages and should look at individual pupils, cohorts and groups (including their punctuality) across the school”.

And schools should: “Devise specific strategies to address areas of poor attendance identified through data. This may, for example, include pupils in a year group with higher than average absence or for pupils eligible for free school meals if their attendance falls behind that of their more advantaged peers.”

Working together: The DfE’s new attendance guidance sets out how schools, local authorities and others should work together to improve attendance and tackle problems (Source: DfE, 2022a)

Local authorities

The guidance also sets out expected duties for local authorities, including tracking local attendance data and having a School Attendance Support Team which offers a number of services free of charge to schools.

These include offering advice to schools and “multi-disciplinary support for families” such as access to early help support workers “to work intensively with families to provide practical whole-family support where needed to tackle the causes of absenteeism and unblock the barriers to attendance”.

When it comes to taking forward legal intervention, local authorities must use “the full range of parental responsibility measures” including parenting contracts and education supervision orders.

Parent fines

The consultation included proposals for national thresholds for fixed penalty notices. Ministers are unhappy that some local authorities issue no fines, while others issue as many as 1,500 a year. More than half of the consultation respondents disagreed with the plan, many of whom disagreed with the principle of fines in the first place.

However, the government said that the use of fines is not up for discussion, rather it was seeking views on a national framework for issuing fines.

Its response states: “The government is clear that there is a place for the use of fixed penalty notices and other forms of legal intervention to secure children’s right to an education as a last resort when support does not work or is not engaged with, or when it is not appropriate such as in the case of term-time holidays.”

The DfE’s response confirms that it will “formalise the principle that fixed penalty notices should only be used where support has been exhausted or was not appropriate”, adding “we will legislate at the earliest possible opportunity to (establish for local authorities) a national framework for issuing fixed penalty notices set out in secondary legislation”.

Having said this, the DfE said it intends to consult further on any proposed thresholds “later this year”.

The consultation response says that “an expanded set of new regulations” will cover the circumstances in which a penalty notice must be considered, and a maximum number of penalty notices that may be issued to one parent in a fixed period before considering prosecution at the next offence.

The response does emphasise that fines should never be used in some cases, such as with emotionally based school refusal: “We also share the view raised by many respondents that parents should not be penalised for their child’s absence if it is because of sickness (mental or physical), disability, or because of met or unmet SEN.”

The attendance picture

The overall absence rate for autumn 2020 was 4.7% of sessions across all types of state school – which equates to three days per pupil. This does not include absences due to Covid and is similar to 2019, when the figure was 4.9%.

Within this, 3.3% of missed sessions were authorised by the school and 1.4% were unauthorised. Broken down by phase, primary schools recorded 3.7% absence (of which 1% were unauthorised), while secondaries recorded 5.7% absence (1.8% unauthorised).

The number of pupils persistently absent increased to 501,642 (16.3%) in secondary schools in autumn 2020, compared with 454,167 in 2019 (15%), not including non-attendance in Covid circumstances. In primary schools, persistent absence has fallen to 9.9% from 11.2% over the same period.

A pupil is identified as a persistent absentee if they miss 10 per cent or more of their possible sessions.

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