Ofsted should hold councils to account for stalling school attendance to ensure a “razor-sharp focus” on the issue, the children’s commissioner has said.
The Parliamentary education committee was also told today schools are misusing attendance codes to avoid being “caught out” doing “managed moves”.
Witnesses also warned better-off parents are abusing the system of fines for term-time holidays, with some councils reporting receiving cheques from rule-breakers before penalties are even issued.
Attendees at the session, the first of the committee’s persistence absence inquiry, included children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza.
With power comes ‘accountability’
While Covid “had an impact” on attendance, de Souza told MPs that of 1.6 million children persistently absent in the autumn and spring terms of 2021-22, 818,000 were not off because of illness.
“I think that’s very serious,” she added.
Lucy Nethsingha, the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and a Local Government Association spokesperson on education, told MPs councils needed the power to direct schools to take children.
de Souza said she accepted the “point about placing children, and I think that really needs to be strengthened”, adding that councils should be “champions of our vulnerable children and all our children”.
“So I think obviously there is a request here for resource, but with that should come accountability too.
“I would like to see Ofsted actually inspecting attendance as part of local authority children’s services inspections. Then there might be a bit more of a razor-sharp focus on it.”
Such inspections already look at whether “urgent action is taken if children are missing from education or if their attendance reduce”.
But de Souza wants Ofsted to go further. A report from her office last year called for a stronger focus on attendance in school inspections, and consideration of new inspections looking specifically at attendance approaches across a whole area.
Fears ‘B-codes’ used to send children home
de Souza said she was “particularly concerned” about schools’ use of the “B” attendance code, which are supposed to be used to record authorised absence when pupils are at another education setting.
“This code is not meant to be used for kids who are at home, working. Now I am seeing great inconsistency of use of the B-code, and I think that is a simple place we could look at.”
The Centre for Social Justice has been trying to “map” where children are if they are not in school, but has run into difficulties tracking the use of B-codes.
Head of education Alice Wilcock warned the codes were “recorded as an authorised absence but we’ve heard of some settings using that now to send children home, to work from home, saying they have been B-coded, when actually they’re not in an education setting they’re just at home”.
“We’ve also heard of B-coding being used for managed moves, such that schools now scared about being caught-out for managed moves are saying ‘we’ll B-code it rather than put it down as a dual registration’.”
Well-off parents stomach fines for cheaper holidays
MPs were also told better-off parents are abusing the system of fines for term-time holidays, with some councils reporting receiving cheques from rule-breakers before penalties are even issued.
de Souza said “well-off” families would look at the prospect of a £200 absence fine and consider the “trade-off” of a £600 discount for travelling outside school holidays.
She even suggested former education secretary Michael Gove could help put pressure on holiday firms that ramp up prices out of term time.
“I wish we could change the industry. I do think we should be putting some moral pressure on there, and maybe we ought to ask a cabinet member who’s passionately interested in it like Mr Gove to try and do that for us. That would be useful.”
Wilcock said CSJ had “heard of some local authorities that receive cheques in the post from parents”.
“They knew they were going to be fined, and so before they got a fixed penalty notice, they went ‘here’s my cheque’. And you can understand why. £60 for a fine. It’s much cheaper.”
Home ed checks delay exploited for term-time breaks
Wilcock also warned that parents who had become “more knowledgeable” about home education were using delays in council checks to avoid scrutiny for term-time holidays, though she said the evidence was only anecdotal.
“Because that [home educated] population is growing, local authorities are struggling to do the necessary checks in a timely fashion.
“Parents can pull their children out of school, go on an extended holiday and go back into school before anybody’s been able to do the checks on them.”
de Souza also revealed she had asked large multi-academy trusts to provide attendance data for analysis of the periods before and after Covid, revealing a “huge amount of Friday absence, that wasn’t there before”.
“Parents are at home on Fridays. And we’ve had evidence from kids, ‘well, mum and dad are at home, stay at home’. We’re seeing in the post-Covid world slightly different attitudes.”
Mentoring pilot doesn’t go far enough
DfE data for the autumn and spring terms of 2021-22 also showed more than 110,000 pupils were “severely” absent – meaning they missed at least half of their time in school. This is up from 57,000 pre-pandemic.
Wilcock said CSJ had called for “2,000 attendance mentors who could support 60,000 children every single year, that’s half of our total severely-absent children”.
The government has launched a pilot which will start in Middlesbrough and then expand to five council areas.
Wilcock said this was “really promising, but ultimately the scale of need is much greater.
“I think the tender suggests that about 1,600 children will be supported, but obviously 118,000 children are severely-absent and we need to get support to them now.”
She also called for a greater focus on severely-absent pupils, pointing out the government’s new live attendance tracker does not include data on those missing 50 per cent or more sessions.