Government signals crackdown on primary truancy

Written by: HTU | Published:

Primary schools have been singled out as the key to breaking the cycle of truancy that some students fall into in their teens.

Primary schools have been singled out as the key to breaking the cycle of truancy that some students fall into in their teens.

Charlie Taylor, the government's expert advisor on behaviour, has also called for an overhaul of the fines system for truants' parents and suggested that those who refuse to pay should be docked child benefit.

Almost 400,000 children currently miss 15 per cent or more school days a year and are accordingly classified as persistently absent by the government. Of these, 133,500 are state primary pupils and 245,500 are secondary students with a handful coming from special schools.

Mr Taylor, a behavioural specialist and former headteacher, has published a review of attendance in which he points out that 54 million days were missed by students last year.

In the report, he said: “The earlier schools address poor attendance patterns, the less likely it is that they will become a long-term issue. The best primary schools realise this and take a rigorous approach to poor attendance from the very start of school life."

Mr Taylor has recommended that reception class attendance data should be published and also believes that Ofsted should be charged with setting attendance targets for schools which struggle.

Elsewhere, Mr Taylor is recommending that parental fines should be increased by £10 to £60 (doubling to £120 if not settled within 28 days) and said that fines should be recouped through docking child benefit if parents refuse to pay.

Parents were issued with 32,641 penalty notices by schools and local authorities in 2010/11, up from 25,657 the previous year. Of those issued, 7,902 went unpaid while 5,727 were withdrawn.

Currently, local authorities have to withdraw penalty notices if they remain unpaid after 42 days and instead seek redress through the courts. However, the government admits that many authorities see court action as a “long-winded process that achieves very little".

In 2010, 9,147 parents were taken to court and found guilty with 6,591 receiving a fine or more serious sanction – the average fine was £165.

Mr Taylor said: We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine. It means the penalty has no effect. Recouping fines through child benefit, along with other changes to the overall system, will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give headteachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part."

Mr Taylor has also said that the government should toughen up rules around term-time holidays, although there should be no outright ban and headteachers should retain their discretion.

The government has said it will amend the Pupil Registration Regulations to “make clear that schools should only give permission where there are exceptional circumstances".

Currently in primary schools, 4.3 per cent of school days are missed by authorised absence and 0.7 per cent are missed due to unauthorised absence.

Education minister Michael Gove, who this week extended Mr Taylor's appointment as his behaviour advisor for another year, said a “fundamental change in approach" was needed.

He added: “Improving the attendance of younger children at primary school will reduce the number who develop truancy problems when they are older."

However, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that primary leaders already focus on reducing absence and that the "real culprit" were the holiday companies who overcharge at peak times.

He said: “Attendance at primary level is just as important as being in school for GCSEs. It is the foundation of future learning. Persistent absence is a terrible thing to do to a child and will put them further and further behind their peers. Heads are already in deep trouble if absence goes above a certain level, so don't lack the motivation to tackle it.

“However, 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 reasons. The real culprit is our holiday arrangements which make the price levels between term-time and holidays so extreme."

Alison Ryan, education policy adviser at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, also warned against raising the level of parental fines. She added: “Putting up fines is likely to hit the most vulnerable families and risks alienating them and their children even further from education. (It) is too simplistic a method to solve the complex range of issues which lead pupils to truant – ranging from bullying, struggling at school, failure to see the value of education, to chaotic home lives with families affected by drink or drug abuse or housing problems."

• For more primary education news from Headteacher Update, click here.

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