Attendance: Proposed new thresholds look set to increase parental fines

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Students with SEN and those living in poverty are more likely to fall foul of new tougher non-attendance thresholds and therefore face the threat of a fixed penalty notice.

An analysis shows that in spring term 2022, as many as 550,000 students met the proposed new non-attendance thresholds that have been published for consultation this week by the Department for Education (DfE, 2022a).

However, pupils with SEND and those on free school meals were significantly more likely to trigger potential fixed penalty notices than their peers.

The DfE’s consultation sets out four national thresholds above which schools and local authorities will be obliged to consider issuing parental fines for a child’s non-attendance at school.

It comes after new attendance guidance was published in May (DfE, 2022b). The guidance will apply in non-statutory form from September although schools can expect it to be given statutory status by September 2023.

The consultation sets out four circumstances when a penalty notice must be considered under the new guidance:

  • Ten sessions of unauthorised absence including lateness in a term (where support has not been successful, has not been engaged with, or is not appropriate).
  • Any incidence of unauthorised holiday in term time.
  • Any sessions of unauthorised absence immediately following a leave of absence in term time.
  • Any incidence of an excluded pupil being in a public place without reasonable justification during the first five school days of an exclusion.

An analysis by FFT Education Datalab, also published this week (Bibby & Thomson, 2022) applied the new thresholds to attendance data for 9,400 secondary and primary schools from the spring term 2022.

When extrapolated across all schools, the results suggest that around 550,000 students would have met one or more of the new thresholds for fixed penalty notices to be considered.

Ten sessions of unauthorised absence: The analysis finds this threshold was far more commonly breached in secondary schools than primary schools during spring term 2022: “The rates for years 9 to 11 at more than 80 pupils per 1,000 are more than double the rates in years 1 to 6.” It adds: “Scaling these figures to the national population suggests there were around 410,000 pupils who missed 10 or more sessions due to unauthorised absence last term.”

Any incidence of unauthorised holiday in term time: Conversely, primary school pupils were more likely to breach this threshold, most notably in years 1 and 2. The analysis adds: “Scaling these figures to the national population suggests there were around 200,000 pupils who missed at least one session due to an unauthorised absence last term.”

Any sessions of unauthorised absence immediately following a leave of absence in term time: This threshold was much less likely to be breached, although in year 11 absences under this criteria reached more than 20 per 1,000 pupils. The analysis adds: “Scaling these figures to the national population suggests there were around 64,000 pupils who missed at least one session due to an unauthorised absence last term.”

The analysis emphasises that 550,000 pupils would not necessarily have been fined under the new rules, especially given that under the first threshold the proposals state that fines should only be used “where support has not been successful, has not been engaged with, or is not appropriate”.

However, 260,000 students during the spring term 2022 met the unauthorised holiday/absence thresholds and would have most likely faced a fine under the new rules.

By way of comparison, under existing guidelines there were 333,000 penalty notices issued in the whole of 2018/19.

Analysis by Bibby and Thomson shows that as many 550,000 pupils would have been at risk of a parental fine for non-attendance if proposed new thresholds were applied to the spring term 2022. This includes for unauthorised holiday (more prevalent in the primary year groups – in blue) and for students with 10 or more unauthorised absences (more prevalent in the secondary year groups – in red) (Source: Bibby & Thomson, 2022).

Furthermore, the analysis sounds a warning over the impact of the proposed new rules on pupils with SEND and those living in poverty.

It finds that pupils on SEN School Support, those with an Education, Health and Care Plan, and those eligible for free school meals were all much more likely to meet one or more of the proposed thresholds.

This was particularly the case at secondary school, especially for disadvantaged pupils who were three times more likely to meet one of the thresholds than their peers.

Warning: The FFT Education Datalab analysis warns that both disadvantaged students and those with SEN are more likely to meet at least one of the proposed non-attendance thresholds triggering potential fixed penalty notices (source: Bibby & Thomson, 2022)

The authors conclude: “In the spring term somewhere between 260,000 and 550,000 pupils met one of the three proposed new criteria for intervention due to absence. In practice we would not expect all of these cases to lead to penalty notices.”

However, they add: “All this gives rise to the question of what support schools can give. There may be adjustments they can make to support children to go to school. But some of the support that may be needed may be beyond a school’s gift. This may arise where access to social, health or specialist services is deemed necessary.”

The DfE’s consultation proposals also set out a maximum number of penalty notices that can be issued to each parent, per-pupil: “We propose setting a national limit of two fixed penalty notices being issued to one parent for the same child in a given school year. After this limit is reached, prosecution should be considered at the next offence.”

And the proposals also set out a “duty for collaboration between those with authority to issue a penalty notice”. It explains: “In addition to local authorities’ current duty to collaborate with neighbouring authorities in delivering the fixed penalty notice system, we propose introducing a new duty on other officers authorised to issue them (including headteachers and the police) to check with the local authority before issuing. This is intended to prevent duplication and prevent a notice from being issued if support (or other legal intervention) is already in progress.”

  • Bibby & Thomson: How many pupils fall below the proposed national thresholds for legal intervention due to absence? FFT, June 2022:
  • DfE: Open consultation: School registers and national thresholds for legal intervention, June 2022a (closes July 29, 2022):
  • DfE: Working together to improve school attendance, May 2022b:

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