Good attendance is essential both for pupils’ attainment, and their wider social development. However, the Department for Education (DfE) has recognised what some call the ‘postcode lottery’ of avoidable school absences. In autumn 2020, the number of school pupils who were persistently absent from school increased by nearly 50,000 from the previous year, with a total of 501,642 pupils regularly missing school, not including non-attendance due to circumstances arising from Covid-19.
The current data demonstrates that there are wholly different approaches to sanctions across the country. For example, some local authorities have been found to issue no fines in respect of non-attendance, whilst other local authorities have issued over 1,500 over the course of a year.
To improve the consistency of school attendance support and management, the DfE is seeking views on what should be included in proposed measures. A consultation has been opened, requesting views on:
- Requiring schools to have an attendance policy, and pay attention to statutory guidance on the expectations of schools, academy trusts and governing bodies of maintained schools
- Guidance on the expectations of local authority attendance services
- A national framework for attendance legal intervention
- Bringing the rules for granting leaves of absence in academies in line with other state-funded schools
Attendance requirements: academies and maintained schools
Whilst there is a great deal of overlap in the attendance requirements in academies and maintained schools, there are also several areas in which the requirements differ. The consultation is hoped to create a unified, consistent approach to tackling non-attendance in schools.
All schools must have an admission register and, except where all pupils are boarders, an attendance register. The admission register must contain the personal details of every pupil, the date of admission or re-admission, information regarding parents and carers, and details of the school last attended.
Schools should put in place appropriate safeguarding responses for children who go missing, particularly on repeat occasions. Where reasonably practicable, for every pupil, schools should hold an emergency contact number for more than one person.
Emergency contact numbers should be provided and updated by the parent with whom the pupil normally resides. This goes beyond the legal requirement but is good practice. Doing so provides the school with additional options for contacting a responsible adult when a child is not in school and is also identified as a welfare and/or safeguarding concern.
The school day
The law requires every school day to have two sessions divided by a break in the middle. Schools must meet for at least 380 sessions or 190 days during any school year to educate their pupils. However, these regulations only apply to maintained schools and special schools not maintained by a local authority. It does not apply to academies and free schools.
Leave of absence
Headteachers in maintained schools, and special schools not maintained by the local authority, are able to grant a leave of absence in exceptional circumstances only. In these situations, when a parent wishes to take their child out of school, they must make an application in advance to demonstrate the exceptional circumstances which necessitate their child’s absence. Headteachers are required to judge on a case-by-case basis whether a leave of absence should be granted.
By contrast, academies are not required to follow the leave of absence regulations, leading to a lack of consistency across the system.
Schools are not currently required to produce an attendance policy, meaning that whilst many have a whole school attendance policy, these vary between schools. The DfE’s proposal is to require all schools to have a published policy on attendance management and improvement, and require them to have regard to new statutory guidance in those areas.
In terms of academies; as well as a duty to ensure an attendance policy is produced, it is proposed to introduce statutory guidance placing specific expectations of academy trusts, covering:
- The trust’s role in promoting good attendance and focussing improvement efforts across its schools
- Training school-level staff on the importance of good attendance and improvement strategies
- Sharing good practice across schools
- Holding individual schools to account and providing support on their attendance management
In respect of maintained schools, it is proposed that the statutory guidance also includes an expectation that the governing body:
- Promotes good attendance and helps focus improvement efforts
- Ensures that training is provided to school staff on the importance of good attendance
- Holds the school leaders to account and provides support on attendance management
Whilst all schools should already be taking steps to be in a position to recognise and manage attendance issues, we would recommend putting an attendance policy in place.
The consultation is due to close on 28 February 2022 and schools are encouraged to voice their thoughts to assist with the development of any new guidance. In addition to the consultation, schools are also being asked to sign up to a new daily attendance data collection trial. During the trial period, data will be gathered directly from school registers, reducing administrative work, and potentially helping schools and central government to quickly spot and address system-wide issues.