On 5th June Helen challenged the Education Minister in a debate on school absence.

Children’s school attendance is an issue that can cause conflict between parents and schools. While most people would agree that good attendance makes for a good education, and that truancy should be prevented, there is some quite fierce debate when it comes to authorised absence – especially when it comes to term-time holidays.

Until 2013, the decision to authorise any school absence was left to headteachers – they were able to look at the circumstances, and make a decision that reflected the best interests of the child and their family. Schools had the freedom to approve the occasional holiday during term-time, where justified in special circumstances.

The rules became more strict in 2013, when the regulations were changed. Absences could now only be authorised in “exceptional circumstances” and references to family holidays were removed as examples. Since then, the number of families fined has trebled.

Helen recently visited Timothy Hackworth Primary School in Shildon and met with teachers, parents and pupils to learn about the work the school were doing to boost pupil attendance. Timothy Hackworth have set up a working group that meet regularly, and have come up with innovative ways to encourage better attendance – from supplying alarm clocks and supporting parents with their morning routine, to launching a breakfast club and introducing a soft start time.

It was clear from this meeting that the school are doing a brilliant job, and are taking attendance seriously. But Ofsted is too rigid on this issue. It emerged that if any school does not have an attendance rate of 96% or above, Ofsted would consider the school (which could be “outstanding” in every other area) as “requiring improvement” and would effectively fail an inspection.

This number seems to have come out of nowhere, and is inflexible. There are no exceptions made, and even genuine authorised absences such as illness count against the school. So when Shildon had an outbreak of Chicken Pox last year, the school’s attendance rate was affected. This Ofsted target even applies to the nursery class – where attendance isn’t legally required.

There are a whole host of good reasons that a child may need to be absent from school, including illness and medical appointments, mental health issues, religious or cultural events, family emergency, weddings, funerals, competing at a national or international level, and yes – sometimes a family holiday. This target imposed on schools and families does not seem fit for purpose. It impacts on low income families the most, because holiday prices go sky-high during the school breaks.

In the video below, you can watch some highlights from the Westminster Hall debate, including the Minister’s response:

 

Although the Minister was not able to explain where this 96% target originated from, his response to this debate suggests it is unlikely that the Government will change their policy in the immediate future.

However, Helen is very keen to hear from parents and school staff about this. She is going to contact Ofsted to press for change. If you would like to share your experiences, please get in touch.

Helen with teachers at Timothy Hackworth School, taken after the attendance meeting.
Helen with teachers at Timothy Hackworth School, taken after the attendance meeting.
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