The government is set to order councils to use their “full range of legal powers” to tackle absence and place new duties on schools and trusts, including publishing improvement plans.
The Department for Education began consulting today on more prescriptive measures to boost attendance , including new statutory guidance (see round-up of proposed changes below).
They plan new rules requiring all schools have and publicise attendance policies, similar to their existing duty on behaviour, with boards and governors expected to scrutinise them. Trusts would also have to provide training and share best practice.
Councils would also face new minimum provision standards and national thresholds for enforcement, and must convene and advise schools.
Meanwhile, academy rules would be tightened to make clear only “exceptional circumstances” warrant authorised absence.
Documents also reveal plans to “modernise” rules over attendance and admissions registers and information-sharing “in due course”.
Another consultation is planned “in the coming weeks” on long-promised plans for a register of children not in school.
It comes as new Education Datalab analysis suggested almost one in four Year 11 pupils was persistently absent last term, with poorer pupils more likely to be off school.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the proposals will “end the postcode lottery of how attendance is managed in different schools and parts of the country, and make sure every child and family gets the best possible support to attend school as regularly as possible”.
He added that “as we transition from pandemic to endemic, it makes me even more determined to fight for children to be in school every day they possibly can be”.
The consultation adds guidance will “underline the importance of supportive approaches being explored first, whilst reiterating that a full range of legal interventions are available where that support does not work or is not engaged with”.
But the aim is to “reduce the number of pupils reaching the stage where legal intervention is necessary” by driving “improvements in proactive school, academy trust, governing body and LA attendance management”.
The consultation runs until February 28. Non-statutory guidance is likely to take effect from September on what school attendance policies and council attendance services must include. These and new rules for penalty notices will be made statutory “when parliamentary time allows”.
1. New duty for schools to publish attendance improvement plans
The plans include mandating all schools to draft, publicise and regularly review policies on attendance management and improvement, which have “regard to new statutory guidance”.
This is “not for the sake of having a document”. Guidance will say documents have to include “clear expectations” of parents and pupils, staff responsible for attendance, strategies for persistent absence reduction and a “clear escalation route” for pupils not attending regularly including support and sanctions.
Trusts and maintained school governors will similarly face new duties on their role promoting good attendance, such as checking and offering strategies to do so, and providing training. Expectations will also include CEOs, trust boards and maintained governors alike holding school leaders to account, supporting and challenging them on attendance.
Trusts will be told to regularly share best practice through communications and networking.
2. ‘Minimum expectations’ for council oversight
Further statutory guidance is planned for local authority attendance services, setting out a “minimum set of expectations” of their work.
Such expectations are likely to include using “the full range of legal powers”, providing advice to all schools, taking a “strategic view” to prioritise areas most in need of support, regularly assembling schools, retaining attendance experts, and early support staff working “intensively” with families.
The document insists it will not “impose a specific model” on councils, however.
3. More ‘consistency and fairness’ on absence fines
The DfE is planning a new “regulatory framework” for the most commonly used sanction, fixed penalty notices, to “improve consistency and fairness” nationwide.
It says councils’ freedom to decide the circumstances in which they issue penalties means similar absence may be treated differently in different areas. It noted 15 councils issued fewer than 10 penalty notices in 2020-21.
Individual local thresholds for sanctions will be replaced with national ones for when notices must be considered. These will include any spell of unauthorised leave of absence in term, a “number of occurences” of lateness, and incidents of pupils being in public during school hours while excluded – with “reasonable exceptions”.
The rules will see councils required to co-ordinate too with neighbouring councils and the police, and maximum numbers of penalties capped before prosecution has to be considered.
But councils will still remain “independent prosecutors” and continue to decide which measures to take, the DfE said.
4. Academy rules on granting leave tightened
The consultation states that current regulations detailing how leave can only be authorised in “exceptional circumstances” only apply to maintained schools.
“Whilst many academies follow this regulation, it does not currently apply to schools that are not maintained by the local authority and are not special schools,” it reads.
“Therefore, to further increase consistency for pupils and parents and ensure fairness across school types, we propose extending the current regulatory making power so that it also covers academies.”