Attendance including truancy and exclusions
Children failing to attend school is a problem which is often a focus of media and political attention. Charlie Taylor, appointed by the Government to report on behaviour and attendance reported in April 2012. His report, the Government’s response and his response to that in July 2012 set out plans for changes, some of which have been already implemented: for example, increases in parental fines from September 2012. His recommendations include reducing the use of the term truancy and using non-attendance, and focusing on overall absence and persistent absence.
The latest DfE guidance on school exclusions was issued in February 2015. However it has been withdrawn because of the possibility of judicial review. Parents can appeal to the school’s governing body or the Academy trust against their child’s exclusion. If the decision is upheld there is a further appeal to an independent review panel. It does not have the power to direct a governing body to reinstate an excluded pupil. However, where a panel decides that a governing body’s decision is flawed when considered in the light of the principles applicable on an application for judicial review, it can direct a governing body to reconsider its decision. If the governing body does not subsequently offer to reinstate a pupil, the panel will be expected to order that the school makes an additional payment of £4,000. This payment will go to the local authority towards the costs of providing alternative provision.
A focus on schools exclusions has been a major part of the work of the Children’s Commissioner. Two reports have been issued by their office and the DfE commissioned research on the profile of those excluded. It showed that children with special needs or eligible for free school meals are more likely to be excluded. The Children’s Commissioner has expressed concern in particular about unlawful exclusions. She highlighted three particular concerns. Firstly, children, parents and even teachers do not know what the law says, and what is and is not acceptable. Secondly, there is a gap in the accountability system; nobody, with the partial exception of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), is actively looking for illegal exclusions. Thirdly, there is no meaningful sanction to prevent schools from doing this.
The law requires parents to make sure their children receive a full-time education suitable to their needs. For most children this means attending school regularly. A child must attend school from the term after they are five years old to the last Friday in June in the academic year that they are 16 years old. Where a child is not a registered pupil and other suitable arrangements are not made, the parent may receive a school attendance order from the local authority requiring them to register their child at a school.
The Gov UK website provides a short summary of the law for parents on school attendance. Another useful summary can also be found in the School Governors’ Guide to the Law.
For school-registered pupils, parents must ensure that their child attends punctually and regularly. Failure to do so is a criminal offence. If they do not, there are various sanctions A summary of action which can be taken by schools and local authorities when a child fails to attend can also be found in guidance issued by the DfE in 2012.
- Schools and local authorities (LAs) may enter into a parenting contract. This is a voluntary, two-sided agreement between the parent and school or LA under which the parent agrees to comply with certain requirements and the school or LA agrees to provide them with the support that they need.
- Education welfare officers, police officers and head teachers have the authority to issue penalty notices to parents of between £60 and £120. Failure to pay a penalty notice will result in prosecution.
- The LA can go to the courts for an education supervision order in respect of the pupil himself/herself which would involve a supervisor being appointed to help the parent get the child back into education.
- The local authority may also prosecute a parent who fails to ensure their child’s regular school attendance. Prosecution could result in a fine of up to £2,500, a jail sentence of up to three months or a community sentence. The courts can also impose parenting orders which require parents to attend counselling or guidance and other requirements which the court deems necessary. LAs and schools can apply for parenting orders to be imposed.
Short exclusions (fixed term) must not total more than 45 days in a school year. Permanent exclusions remove a child from the school roll and other provision must be found. The Gov UK site sets out the law on exclusions for parents. If a child is excluded parents must take responsibility for their child, if excluded, and ensure that they are not in a public place without good reason during school hours within the first five school days of any exclusion. If they do not, the school or local authority may issue a £60 penalty. Parents must also ensure that their child attends the suitable full-time education provided by the local authority from the sixth day of exclusion. If they do not, the school or local authority may ask them to sign a parenting contract, may issue a £60 penalty or the local authority may prosecute them.
Schools are required to take attendance records twice a day, morning and afternoon. Absence is categorised as overall absence, persistent absentees and authorised or unauthorised absence depending on the number of sessions (i.e. morning and afternoon) not attended. Authorised absence is absence with permission from the teacher or other representative of the school for which a satisfactory explanation has been provided, e.g. illness. Unauthorised absence is without permission, including arriving late. As the decision is a local decision it is thought that there is unmeasured variation between schools. Pupils are defined as persistent absentees if missing around 15 per cent or more of possible sessions (46 or more sessions for five half terms and 56 or more sessions for six half terms).
Statistics produced in March 2014 show that the percentage of pupil enrolments that are persistent absentees decreased from 5.2 per cent in 2011/12 to 4.6 per cent in 2012/13. The largest falls were seen in secondary schools. The overall absence rate increased from 5.1 per cent in 2011/12 to 5.2 per cent in 2012/13. This is said to be due to the increase in authorised absence levels of 0.1 percentage points from 4.1 per cent in 2011/12 to 4.2 per cent in 2012/13 due to sickness. The unauthorised absence rate remained at 1.0 per cent in 2012/13 and has changed little over the past five years.
Every year in July a Statistical Release sets out the statistics on fixed and permanent exclusions. One finding in the report issued in July 2014 is that the number of permanent exclusions has decreased across all school types. The greatest decrease occurred in secondary schools, where the number of permanent exclusions fell from 4,390 (0.14 per cent of pupil enrolments) in 2011/12 to 3,900 (0.12 per cent of pupil enrolments) in 2012/13. As in previous years it was reported that boys are more likely to receive a permanent or fixed period exclusion than girls; pupils with special educational needs (SEN) (with and without statements) account for seven in 10 of all permanent exclusions and pupils known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals (FSM) are four times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion and three times more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion; 14 year olds have the highest rate of exclusion.
A DfE three-year trial giving some schools the responsibility for finding alternative provision for excluded pupils ended in 2014 and an evaluation was published in July 2014. One finding was that teachers reported that fewer children on average had been permanently excluded from trial schools than comparison schools. In many trial schools there had been an increased focus on GCSE attainment, particularly in English and maths, for those in Pupil Referral Units or Alternative Provision. There has been a DfE focus on alternative provision and regulations came into force in January 2013.
An article on the Conversation website by a researcher who advised on a recent television programme about a group of excluded pupils raises concerns for example about the higher incidence of children with special needs among those excluded.