Attendance: Another fine mess the government’s got us into

Punishing struggling families by making them struggle more is outdated, regressive and completely counter-productive

Punishing struggling families by making them struggle more is outdated, regressive and completely counter-productive

Ed Dorrell

1 Mar 2024, 11:04

absences fines

Some things just make my urine boil. In education, fines for non-attendance is one of those things. 

It’s a crap policy. It’s so crap, in fact, that it achieves the opposite of what it is designed to achieve.

At a time of deeply worrying attendance figures – a crisis that is driving an even wider wedge into the attainment gap – increasing fines for parents of those who persistently don’t show up at school is exactly the opposite of what we need. It is terrible, terrible policy-making.

I am slightly disappointed to be writing this. There are bits of the government’s bundle of attendance measures revealed yesterday that I’d like to be applauding.

For one, the change in tone is good. My work with Sally Burtonshaw last summer talking to parents about the attendance crisis showed that the messaging wasn’t working. Parents simply didn’t buy the idea that absolutely every single lesson was profoundly important. Flipping the line to being about “moments” – alluding to shared experiences – is a good idea.

The thinking behind using and sharing much deeper and richer data is also good. For me the jury is out though. I see exactly no evidence that the system is remotely close to being ready to share the kind of consistently recorded information that would be needed to make this initiative work. But let’s not be unnecessarily mean. God loves a trier.

But all this good work and good thinking will come to nothing compared to the abysmal plans to hike up fines.

This is a policy that will drive a wedge between the school and the families who they most need to be working with. Schools and the services that exist around them need to rebuild relationships and trust with these parents, not to be forced to punish them – and ultimately threaten them with non-payment – if they want their children to come back to the classroom. They need to understand them and nurture them.

These fines will actually make attendance less likely

Don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to this dad from Long Eaton who was in one of our focus groups.

“You can’t fine someone who hasn’t got any money, that’s really just putting a whole other level of stress on them. So if you’ve already got mental health issues, that’s just going to make it ten times worse. We need to think of better ways to help them.”

When enforced, these fines will actually make these families poorer. Which in turn makes their lives harder, more chaotic and attendance less likely. Our research found that it wasn’t just the pandemic that had triggered the crisis in school attendance, it was the cost of living too. It’s not rocket science to conclude that adding to those costs is probably not a great idea.

Increasing fines is also deeply regressive. It will punish the poor, and make zero difference to the middle classes and the affluent. Try telling me that the increase will change the behaviour of this middle class mum we spoke to in Bristol (spoiler alert: it won’t).

“We always took them skiing and we always did it in February half term to try and comply. Now I look back and I think why on earth did I do that? Why didn’t I just take them out for a cheap week in January? I would almost say skiing is quite educational.”

Surely, surely, it is time to move beyond such policies, policies that almost no school leader I know thinks work. Surely it is time to recognise that if we want to reverse the attendance crisis, we must rebuild both trust and the structures that support families to get their children into school.

Punishing struggling families by making them struggle more is not just outdated, it’s basically Victorian.

Reintroduction of the workhouse, anyone?

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