The number of parents prosecuted in England because their children have skipped school has gone up. But it’s possible that the tightening of regulations around authorised absences are disproportionately affecting different groups. Rather than the parents of persistent truants feeling the heat over the absence of their children from school, it may be those who actually ask for their child to be absent from school and have their requests turned down.
Since 2013, parents who choose to take their children on holiday during school term time are responsible for the unauthorised absence of their child and can ultimately be liable for a truancy prosecution leading to a fine of up to £2,500, a community order or a three-month jail sentence.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice reported by the Press Association, showed that the number of parents prosecuted increased by 25% between 2013 and 2014, to 16,430. It’s not clear how many of these prosecutions were for parents taking their children out of school for holidays.
Truancy going down
However, the latest data from the Department for Education for autumn 2014, shows a reducing trend of absenteeism in England’s schools. With overall national attendance above 95%, I’d question whether the issues of absence during term-time are such a national concern – or whether more effort should be focused on the significant minority of persistent truants.
A deeper analysis of the data shows that while the authorised absence rate has reduced, the unauthorised absence rate remained constant at 0.9%. This suggests that in general, headteachers are authorising fewer absences and that parents are respecting those decisions. However, there appears to be little impact on bringing down persistent unauthorised truancies.
It’s clear that the reason for truancy prosecutions is not only about family holidays during school term time. A significant proportion of truancy cases are likely to be related to complex family and community issues.
Schools alone cannot solve the problem of truancy and community engagement is essential. Australian research has demonstrated that, for persistent absentees, there should be an emphasis on parental engagement and that every day of school missed has an impact on children’s achievement. The research goes on to say that interventions for improving attendance have to start early to have maximum impact. In some schools, community mentors and family liaison staff are employed to coordinate activity in this area.
Although there is agreement on a community approach to persistent truancy, it is not well suited to addressing the issue of parents taking children on holiday during school term time. The two primary reasons why parents might take their children out of school are likely to be the cost of holidays outside of school term time and the difficulty in parents being able to secure leave to coincide with school holidays. Given the current economic climate and that fact that families are stretched financially, it is not surprising that holidays during school term time are a serious consideration for some parents.
Headteachers do the dirty work
This can put pressure on the relationship between headteachers and parents. Headteachers have the power to authorise absence, in exceptional circumstances, but only in the context of scrutiny from schools inspectorate Ofsted against national attendance benchmarks. This can be particularly problematic in a small school where the absence of an individual child has a greater impact on overall attendance figures and could bring them closer to falling below national benchmarks.
Although the current approach of fining parents whose children skip school was controversial when launched, it did coincide with an overall decrease in truancy in schools in 2013. The problem is that this creates an unnecessary obstacle in the relationship between parents and the headteacher and disproportionately affects compliant parents.
However we try to address this problem, the reality is that education in England is changing at a rapid pace. The days of schools being solely focused on reading, writing and arithmetic are gone. There is also a need for children to develop creative interdisciplinary skills so that they can learn to address the big challenges that society will face in the future, such as food security or cybercrime.
It could be argued that developing an awareness of international cultures, even through holidays, is part of the learning process and some parents have used this to justify taking children on holiday. But even if headteachers did authorise absence for family holidays and other excursions, there still remains a bigger question about how to minimise the impact on attainment.
Better able to catch-up
One approach would be to adopt a more holistic approach to education and to focus less on memorising facts and absorbing knowledge and more on developing children’s key skills and competencies through a variety of contexts. With the expansion of free schools and academies, which have more autonomy to teach children the curriculum in different ways, this is already happening in some areas. A system could be implemented so that children with a good attendance record are able to access authorised leave during school term-time.
Consideration also needs to be given to how children catch up when they return to school following an authorised absence. In the same way as children who are off for illness, schools already have well-established systems for supporting children to catch up. Technology may have a role to play here as well – the use of video to record lessons is becoming increasingly widespread in schools.
It is unlikely that fining parents for doing what they think is right for their children is going to solve the problem. A pragmatic solution is needed to address this complex issue.