DfE to let councils invest absence fines in attendance support

The DfE has also published more prescriptive guidance for schools, trusts and councils on attendance policies

The DfE has also published more prescriptive guidance for schools, trusts and councils on attendance policies

6 May 2022, 14:25

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Local authorities will be able to use the proceeds of school absence fines to fund their attendance support services as the government imposes new standards on schools, boards and councils.

The Department for Education consulted in January on more prescriptive attendance rules, promising to boost attendance and end a “postcode lottery” in rules and numbers of fines.

Its response was published today alongside non-statutory guidance for councils, schools and trusts which comes into effect this September.

The guidance sets out new detailed minimum standards for attendance policies and support, including schools publishing their strategies (full details below).

The DfE insists measures will save councils money and end an “over-reliance” on fines, and highlighted council and multi-academy trust respondents’ broad support for the reforms.

But it ignored warnings it will force council cuts elsewhere, with most councils thought not to currently meet the new standards, and opposition from hundreds of parents.

Use parent fines to fund support services

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has made attendance a high-profile priority, and previously told councils to warn parents of “repercussions” for children missing school.

The new guidance includes ordering councils to use the “full range of parental responsibility measures” where families do not engage with support, which includes fines.

It comes in spite of many respondents voicing “their objection to the use of fixed penalty notices overall”.

But the DfE also struck a supportive tone, saying it is “in agreement that families need support”.

The only new proposal added since the consultation is to free up more cash for support services by allowing councils to use fixed penalty notice revenues to help fund them.

Scrapping current restrictions – which state receipts from fines can only be used to issue more fines or prosecutions – means “money can be used for preventing the need for their use in the first place”.

It comes after some councils warned in the consultation the DfE’s new attendance requirements would force them to “reprioritise existing resource”, with a lack of funding a “common theme” in responses.

The government scrapped the £600 million education services grant in 2017, and another £41 million school improvement grant in January – with both previously helping councils boost attendance.

The DfE admits it expects implementing reforms will cost £251,101, but claims its reforms will ultimately save councils £274,743 a year.

The government estimated 95 per cent of councils do not currently meet its new expectations, but it assumes they can save money by copying four of the eight unidentified councils said to already meet the rules.

Reforms are “designed to be delivered through better use of existing resources”.

The attendance duties for schools, trusts and councils

The new 67-page guidance includes a detailed outline of new minimum expectations for both schools, boards and councils.

Schools must have a “whole-school culture” that promotes high attendance, and an easy-to-understand attendance policy published on websites and flagged annually to parents.

Also key are “strong relationships” with families, understanding and working to remove barriers to attendance, and working “collaboratively” with other partners to tackle persistent or severe absence risks.

Schools must also “regularly monitor and analyse attendance and absence data”, to identify and build effective strategies for pupils or cohorts in need of support. Follow-up processes for absence must be “effective”.

All trust and maintained boards are expected too to ensure leaders fulfil expectations, promote attendance across school and review and challenge over attendance data. Trust and federation boards must share good practice across schools.

The DfE acknowledged “concern” over funding to meet expectations. But it promised sessions sharing best practice and said “numerous schools…already meet these expectations within their existing budgets”.

Meanwhile councils must also “rigorously track” data, and support all schools free with communication, advice, termly support meetings, multi-disciplinary support and legal intervention. Monitoring attendance of children with social workers is expected too.

A further consultation is planned in May on a new national set of thresholds for when fines are issued. The DfE said previously this would “improve consistency and fairness”, but three-quarters of parents polled opposed the move.

Some voiced concern the plan “does not address SEND of mental health issues” behind absences.

One warned: “If these children are refusing to attend due to crippling stress/anxiety, the school or LA would be unfairly punishing parents with threat of, or actual, legal action. Flexible approaches are needed.”

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  1. Peter Endersby

    They must clamp down on part time timetables which seem to be rife in secondary schools, pupils in for 2 hours a day or on “twilight” provision where they are in for 1 hour from 3-4pm. This must be stopped as it is a national scandal