School attendance: National thresholds for fixed penalty notices

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

New school attendance proposals will set national thresholds at which a fixed penalty notice must be considered and require schools to have an official attendance policy.

The Department for Education has published plans for consultation (DfE, 2022) that seek to end the “radically different approaches” to the use of sanctions across the country.

Ministers say that while some local authorities issued no fixed penalty notices (FPNs) to parents in 2020/21, others issued more than 1,500.

FPNs are currently £120, reduced to £60 if paid within 21 days and 45,809 were issued to parents during the 2020/21 academic year, with 76 per cent of these being for unauthorised family holidays.

The proposals set out a new regulatory framework for the issuing of FPNs, which would include the circumstances in which a fine “must be considered”. Such circumstances would include:

  • A number of sessions of unauthorised absence in a fixed period.
  • An incidence of unauthorised leave of absence in term time.
  • Any sessions of unauthorised absence immediately following a period of authorised leave in term time.
  • A number of occurrences of lateness.
  • An incidence of being in a public place during school hours when excluded (with reasonable exceptions).

The consultation document states: “The new regulations would cover the same areas as existing local authority codes of conduct but replace individual local thresholds with national thresholds at which a penalty notice must be considered, move away from blanket policies about their use, and require individual case-by-case decisions when a threshold is met.”

The proposals would also specify the maximum number of penalty notices that can be issued to a parent in a given period.

However, school leaders have responded, calling FPNs a “blunt instrument”, highlighting the “hard work and persistence” of a range of professionals that is required to address persistent absence, and calling for better funding to support this work in local authorities.

The overall absence rate for autumn 2020 was 4.7 per cent 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 per cent.

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

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

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

Elsewhere, the plans would also for the first time require schools to have an attendance policy. While it acknowledges that many schools already have such a document, it says that there is “great variety in their quality and how frequently they are updated”.

The consultation adds: “To improve consistency of effective practice, we propose to require all schools to have a published policy on attendance management and improvement (similar to their existing duty on behaviour) and require them to have regard to new statutory guidance on attendance management and improvement.”

The consultation says that these attendance policies would have to cover:

  • How the school sets clear expectations for parents and pupils.
  • The day-to-day processes around attendance management that parents can expect (for example, phoning the parent on the first day of an unauthorised absence).
  • How the school is promoting good attendance (for example, through regular monitoring).
  • The named member/s of staff responsible for attendance.
  • The specific strategies the school is using to address persistent absence (for example, how the school will use data to target improvement action on the pupils or pupil cohorts that need it most and how they will work with wider services to provide a whole family response).
  • The clear escalation route in the event of a pupil’s failure to attend regularly, including how pastoral staff will provide support and access wider services, clarity on when the local authority/other agencies will be involved and what support they can provide, and ultimately the point at which sanctions will be sought if the support does not work or is not engaged with.

The plans would also introduce statutory guidance on the expectations of local authority attendance services. This will not impose a specific model, but will set out “a minimum set of components” including:

  • Making use of the full range of legal powers (including education supervision orders and parenting contracts) as well as fixed penalty notices and prosecutions for non-attendance where support does not work or is not engaged with.
  • Bringing schools together regularly to communicate messages, provide advice and share best practice.
  • Providing advice to all schools in the area and providing opportunities for regular conversations with schools to use their absence data to identify pupils and cohorts at risk and agreeing target actions and access to services for those pupils.
  • Having the infrastructure to make sure families receive whole family support to address the causes of poor attendance, including early help support workers who work intensively with families.

Finally, the proposals would bring the rules for granting leaves of absence in academies into line with other state-funded schools – although the consultation document admits that many academies already follow the state-school regulations in this regard.

Commenting on the proposals, James Bowen, director of policy for the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Fines have always been a relatively blunt tool when it comes to tackling persistent absenteeism. While some clarity and consistency regarding how fines are used across the country might be helpful, the government will need to be prepared to go much further if it truly wants to make a difference in this area. Updated policies and clearer guidance alone won’t be enough.

"As all schools know, tackling persistent absenteeism requires a great deal of hard work, persistence and a range of different professionals working together to tackle the underlying issues facing pupils and families.

"Local authorities, along with other agencies, can play a vital role in supporting schools in this work but they require sufficient funding to do so. We know that many have had to scale back the support they are able to offer schools as a result of financial pressures.

"We share the government’s ambition to ensure that every child has good attendance, and hope they are prepared to match that ambition with the appropriate level of resources.”

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi added: ”Our new proposals will end the postcode lottery of how attendance is managed in different schools and parts of the country, and make sure every child and family gets the best possible support to attend school as regularly as possible.”

  • DfE: School attendance: Improving consistency of support (consultation closes on February 28), January 2022: https://bit.ly/3nYqDat
  • DfE: Autumn Term 2020/21: Pupil absence in schools in England, July 2021: https://bit.ly/3KKmUqM
  • See also: DfE: Guidance: Improving school attendance: support for schools and local authorities, last updated January 2022: https://bit.ly/3g0evRL


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