Would Members leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as they can, avoiding private conversations if at all possible? The level of interest in the absence from school debate is proved by the absence of Members from the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered authorised absence from school.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I have raised this issue with the Minister many times, both in debates and directly. I have campaigned for the Government to review and change their policy for some time. I remain of the view that it is not the role of the state to dictate to parents what is right and best for their children; that should be decided in partnership between parents and the school. I wanted to raise the issue again today in the light of a number of recent developments and cases that have been brought to me, both by constituents and by parents elsewhere in the country.
Part of the problem is that although the Government say that absence from school should be authorised by headteachers only in exceptional circumstances, they do not provide clear guidance as to what constitutes an exceptional circumstance. That has led to a degree of confusion and complicated situations, as was highlighted recently by the climate change protests, during which thousands of schoolchildren took time away from school to attend the demonstrations. I am reliably informed—it has been reported—that many of those children were given authorised absence to miss classroom time in order to attend those protests. Leaving aside the point that I do not see how something can be called a strike when people have been given permission to be absent, parents should be able to expect some consistency in the application of the policy.
I do not have a problem with children missing time from the classroom to attend those demonstrations. Education is about far more than what takes place in our classrooms, and attending such events broadens children’s experiences and knowledge and gives them a wider view of the world, so it is incredibly beneficial to their education. However, I need to challenge the inconsistency. Headteachers have granted leave for children to attend those demonstrations, yet in many other cases that I am aware of, parents have requested authorised leave from school from headteachers for what most reasonable people would consider to be equally good reasons and have been denied.
I know of children who had been selected to compete at international level in their sport, yet their school refused to grant them leave to go and represent their country. I know of one child whose parent requested one day off school—the day before the school broke up for Christmas—so that he could fly to see his father who he had not seen for a year, yet the school refused that request for leave. There seems to be huge inconsistency in applying the rules, and I do not believe it should simply be down to headteachers to determine for which events or experiences it is appropriate for children to miss school. Making that decision should primarily be the responsibility of parents, in conjunction with the school.
The current policy came in in 2013. It was brought in through a statutory instrument and no impact assessment was carried out. As I have said many times to the Minister, the lack of an impact assessment was an oversight or a mistake by the Government. Until that time, a common-sense approach allowed headteachers discretion to decide when it was appropriate for children to be given leave to be absent from school for a number of reasons. I still argue that headteachers should be given that discretion, because they know the pupils, the families, the communities that they are part of, and the particular pressures and challenges that such a community might face. They are therefore best placed to make the decision in conjunction with the parents, rather than be dictated to centrally.
The rules are applied inconsistently across the UK. Fines are not imposed in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and even though fines are imposed in Wales, a report commissioned by the Welsh Government showed that they are not working. The number of unauthorised absences has gone up since 2013, particularly for family holidays, so the rules have not reduced the level of unauthorised absence in the way that was expected.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate on an extremely important subject. At Timothy Hackworth School in my constituency, there are real worries that if it falls below 96% attendance, because a contagious disease or another perfectly valid reason pushes the number of absences up, Ofsted will mark it down. Will the Minister address the question of whether Ofsted is so inflexible that every school has to achieve 96%, irrespective of circumstance?
I am grateful for that intervention. I will probably elaborate further on the hon. Lady’s point, but she is absolutely right that the drive to attain an attendance level above everything else, with no recognition of the welfare of the children involved, seems to be overriding common sense. One headteacher told me recently in a meeting, “If our school was outstanding in every other respect, but we fell short of the attendance target, we would deemed as ‘requires improvement’ simply for missing the attendance target.” That situation seems bonkers to me. Rather than looking at the wider picture of what is right and best for our children, schools are being driven by the Ofsted inspection regime to focus on an attendance target above all else. I will cite a few examples showing how that has been detrimental to the wellbeing and welfare of children and families in our communities.
We now have a situation where parents who for perfectly legitimate reasons are unable to take a family holiday during the school holiday period are basically subject to an arbitrary tax imposed by the local authority for taking their children out of school. Is the Minister’s Department aware of how local authorities are spending that money? As far as I can see, literally tens of thousands of pounds is being collected by local authorities through these fines, yet no one seems to know how that money is spent. It would be reasonable for parents to know how the extra tax they are paying is being spent.
For many families, the fines are no deterrent, because they are less than the money they save by taking their children on holiday during term time. If having a cheaper holiday is their motivation, facing a fine is not a deterrent. What it does do is penalise the poorest families in our society. It is a regressive tax. In my constituency, many simply cannot afford a holiday in peak season. We are saying to those poorer families, “Because you cannot afford it, you cannot have a holiday unless you face this additional fine.” It is a regressive situation.
Additionally, the fine hits small business owners the hardest. I have many small business owners in my constituency, particularly in the tourism industry, who are simply unable to take time away from their business during the peak season. That is where they make their money. They are faced with either taking their children on holiday out of peak season when business is quieter and they can afford to have a week away, or not having a family holiday. I say respectfully to the Minister that any policy that hits the entrepreneurs and small business owners of our country in particular should have no place under a Conservative Government. We are targeting the very people we say we stand up for.
A key point that I want to make is that the policy is clearly incredibly unpopular with parents. I am grateful to the parliamentary digital engagement team, which put out some public engagement on social media ahead of the debate. We have seen literally tens of thousands of responses. Mumsnet posted it, and it was the post that attracted the most attention in the whole month of May.
Many parents clearly feel strongly about the policy, but my key point is that it damages the relationship between parents—the family—and the school. It pits one against the other. I was a school governor for 19 years. Sadly, I had to step away from that when I was elected to the House, as I simply did not have time to do it any longer, but I know from that time that at the heart of good education is a partnership between the home and the school. We have got to get away from the concept that education takes place only in the classroom. Education is about the whole of life, and parents have a crucial and central role to play in any child’s education. When that works well, it works in partnership with the school.
Time and again, I have seen this policy break that constructive and positive relationship between parents and the school. Constituents have told me that, because the school refused to give them authorised leave and they were then fined, they refuse to fundraise for the school or volunteer to support it. The policy is counterproductive. We should be encouraging positive relationships between parents and schools, but our policy is damaging that relationship. Whatever gains the Department for Education may feel it is making in education by getting children to be in the classroom more often, I would suggest we are losing out from the loss of good will between parents and the school, and the breakdown of that positive relationship.
Perhaps I can trespass for another couple of seconds on the hon. Gentleman to say that he is absolutely right. Furthermore, we see rising mental health problems among children and young people, and this kind of stress is exactly what families do not need.
I think the hon. Lady has read my notes; I am slightly worried. The next point I wanted to raise was that one of the unintended consequences—I do not believe anyone in the ministerial team or the Department for Education intends it—is the impact the policy is having on some of the most vulnerable children, including those with special needs and particularly those with mental health challenges. Several parents from my constituency have come to see me because they are at their wits’ end. Their children have severe mental health challenges, yet the school will not authorise them to miss any time off school, when they are not able to attend school regularly because of the mental health challenges they face.
In one case the school said, “We will not authorise your leave until you have a diagnosis for your child,” but we all know that it takes months and months to get a mental health diagnosis for young people. Parents are getting warning letters from the school because their child is missing school, even though it knows that the child has mental health conditions. All that does is aggravate the issue for the child and the parents.
The way the policy is being driven by Ofsted and some of our schools is incredibly detrimental to the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. I therefore believe that we need to take a serious, long look at the policy. The policy is putting schools and headteachers in an impossible situation. The drive to raise attendance levels above all else is having an incredibly detrimental impact on some families and children.
Part of the problem—this was alluded to earlier by the hon. Lady—is that there is a sense of buck-passing. The DFE says that heads have discretion to exercise their judgment on what is an exceptional circumstance, but headteachers tell me that when they exercise that discretion—correctly, they believe—if the attendance level drops, they are criticised and marked down by Ofsted. When I meet Ofsted staff and challenge them, they tell me that they are only doing what they are instructed to do by the DFE.
There seems to be a vicious circle that no one can break out of. We need to be clear about whether headteachers have discretion to exercise their judgment. If they do, they need to be allowed to do so and not be criticised by Ofsted. If taking discretion away from headteachers is a clear policy being driven from the centre, let us be honest about that so that the headteachers are not put in an impossible situation.
Before winding up, I want to mention the impact on the holiday market and holiday businesses. Many firms get criticised for raising their prices during the peak holiday season, which is basically the school holidays, but the reality is—I have literally hundreds of such businesses in my constituency—that is now the only time of the year in which they get to make money. Parents are prevented from bringing their children outside the holiday season, so all that demand gets condensed into six or seven weeks in the summer season, and that is when those businesses have to make their money. We cannot blame them. If the demand is there, and they need to make their money in those few short weeks, clearly prices will go up. However, we are exacerbating the issue through this policy. By making the demand so condensed in those few weeks, we are making holidays even more unaffordable for many families, so they have to choose to take their holiday at another time. It is another case of the policy being counterproductive.
I have many examples. When word went out that I had secured this debate, literally thousands of people across the country contacted me with examples of how the policy is negatively affecting their family and children. I do not have time to read many of them, but there are many cases of families struggling to live with the consequences of the policy.
I do not think that the policy is working, and we are not achieving what we actually want to, which is better outcomes for children. We have to take a wider view and understand that education is about more than the classroom. The policy is counterproductive, because it damages the vital, constructive, positive relationship between families and schools, and it hits some of the most vulnerable in our society. Once again, I put it to the Minister that we really need to review the policy and consider a better way of applying the right sort of expectations on parents with regard to having their children in school regularly. We must ensure that we are not damaging children and families as a result of the policy, and look at whether there is a better way of doing this.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing the debate. I know that this subject is of close interest to him. As he mentioned, it is one that we have debated on a number of occasions over the years.
We can all agree that children’s education should not be disrupted by preventable absences. Regular attendance at school is fundamental to ensuring that every pupil, no matter their background, can meet their full potential. It is about social mobility. That is why I welcome this opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to improving school attendance and ensuring that schools tackle all forms of absence as part of our ambition to create a world-class education system. I will set out the Government’s overall policy on reducing school absence before turning to the issue of term-time holidays.
There is a correlation between time absent from school and attainment. Pupils with higher overall absence tend to do less well in their GCSEs, even after taking their prior attainment and some other characteristics into account, as set out in the report by the Department for Education, “Absence and attainment at key stages 2 and 4: 2013 to 2014”. A pupil who has been absent is also liable to interrupt the education of other pupils and to increase the workload on teachers, as schools seek to ensure that an absent pupil catches up with the work that he or she has missed.
The Government have made the rules clear: no child should be taken out of school without good reason. We have put headteachers back in control by supporting them, and local authorities, to use their powers to deal with absence. We secured changes to the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, to which my hon. Friend referred, to reduce overall absence.
The persistent absence threshold was changed from 15% to 10% in September 2015 to encourage schools to act earlier in dealing with patterns of poor attendance. Persistent absence from school remains a society-wide challenge. We recognise the need for further action in this area, following a small but consistent increase in the number of pupils missing 10% or more of sessions in recent years; that figure is up from 10.8% in 2016-17 to 11.2% in 2017-18.
In 2013, we also clarified the law to address the widespread misconception that parents were entitled to take their children on holiday during term time. No such entitlement has ever existed in law. In clarifying the law, the Government ensured that headteachers retained the discretion to authorise a leave of absence when they were confident that the request constituted an exceptional circumstance. The Department has not specified to schools what constitutes exceptional circumstances. Schools know their pupils better than the Department, and can consider the specific details and relevant context behind each request for a leave of absence.
My hon. Friend will agree that what constitutes exceptional circumstances will differ enormously depending on individual and local circumstances. That is why it would not be appropriate for the Government to dictate what exceptional circumstances would warrant authorised absence across the country. We are clear that children should not be absent from school unless the circumstances are genuinely exceptional.
I agree with my hon. Friend that a positive and constructive relationship between parents and schools is essential. That is why we encourage parents to talk to their child’s school to make their case when they require a leave of absence. If parents wish to take their child out of school, the onus is on them to apply to the school in advance for a leave of absence, demonstrating in their application why they believe that there are exceptional circumstances.
I disagree with my hon. Friend that the Department’s attendance policy is counterproductive. Despite a very small increase in overall absence from 4.7% in 2016-17 to 4.8% in 2017-18, overall absence has fallen significantly from 6% in 2009-10. Parents have a duty, under section 7 of the Education Act 1996, to ensure that if their child is of compulsory school age—five to 16—he or she receives an
“efficient full-time education…either by attendance at school or otherwise”.
We have ensured that schools and local authorities have a range of measures to support or sanction parents when their child’s absence from school becomes a problem. The law gives schools and local authorities powers to offer parenting contracts and obtain parenting orders in relation to attendance. The law is clear that if parents register their child at a school and the child fails to attend regularly, parents may be guilty of an offence under section 444 of the 1996 Act, and may be given a penalty notice unless statutory exceptions apply, including where leave has been granted by the headteacher.
The penalty notice offers parents the opportunity to avoid any conviction for the offence, if the penalty is paid in full and within the timescales. Prosecution of a parent is available to local authorities as the ultimate sanction under section 444 of the 1996 Act. Penalties are therefore a way of avoiding prosecution, although of course local authorities can go straight for a prosecution.
Since we last debated the issue, the Supreme Court has clarified that regular attendance in section 444(1) of the 1996 Act means attendance
“in accordance with attendance rules”.
The Court also recognised the disruptive effect of taking a child out of school during term time, both on the child and on the work and study of the other children at the school and in the class.
Turning to my hon. Friend’s point about term-time holidays, the Government recognise the value of family holidays in providing enriching experiences that can indeed have educational value. However, the school year is designed to give families the opportunity to enjoy breaks and holidays without disrupting their children’s education. Schools are in session for 190 out of 365 days, leaving 175 days in a year on which parents can take their children away on holiday. I recognise that the cost of holidays is a frustration for parents, and the Secretary of State and I encourage travel operators to do what they can to provide value for money to families.
The Government do not set term and holiday dates. Decisions around term dates are best taken locally, especially where the local industry—for example, tourism—creates a compelling reason to set term dates that differ from those of the rest of the country. Local authorities are responsible for setting term dates for community schools, community special schools, and voluntary-controlled schools.
Variation in school holiday dates between local authorities already exists. That was seen over the recent Easter holidays. Sheffield City Council, for example, has a fixed Easter break at the beginning of April, which this year fell outside the official Easter peak. Similarly, in 2017, Nottinghamshire County Council took the decision to shorten its summer break and extend its October half term to two weeks, following consultation with parents.
All academies and free schools, which account for about 36% of state-funded schools, have responsibility for setting their term and holiday dates. Other schools, where the governing body is the employer of staff, such as foundation or voluntary-aided schools, also have that power, which some have already used to adapt their term dates to suit the needs of their pupils and local areas. That is an important freedom that the Government have encouraged schools to use. If parents and schools want different term dates, so they can take their children on holidays outside the more expensive peak holiday season, they should discuss that with their local authority, or with their child’s school, if it is a foundation, voluntary-aided school or academy.
Will the Minister address the question of whether Ofsted is failing schools if attendance is below 96%? If 96% is the wrong number, will he tell us the right one?
I am about to come on to Ofsted, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, and its role in influencing schools’ decisions.
Ofsted’s inspection framework makes it clear that it will consider an up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils. Inspectors will make a judgment about the behaviour and attitudes in a school. The inspection framework specifies that in doing so, they will look for a strong focus on attendance and punctuality, so that disruption is minimised. They will expect to see clear and effective behaviour and attendance policies, with clearly defined consequences that are applied consistently and fairly by all staff. They will also consider how well the school meets the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, and pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for highlighting the issues around school attendance. To answer my hon. Friend’s question about how the money is spent, the requirement is for it to be reinvested in the attendance system in the local area. The system is intended to be cost-neutral. Many areas spend it on supporting projects to improve school attendance locally.[Official Report, 10 June 2019, Vol. 661, c. 3MC.]
The Government take the issue seriously and have put in place a number of measures to prioritise and incentivise school attendance. We will continue to monitor progress and encourage schools and local authorities to use their powers to stagger term dates where appropriate.
Question put and agreed to.