The government will press ahead with tougher attendance rules forcing all schools to hold electronic registers that the education secretary will have direct access to.
But proposals to introduce “thresholds at which a penalty notice must be considered” for unauthorised absences remain in limbo as they were tied to the shelved schools bill.
The Department for Education has responded today to its consultation on the changes – which it hoped would help slash persistent absence rates.
But the new rules, which will need to be laid before parliament, will not come into force until September 2024 at the earliest, government said.
Concerned parents ‘carefully listened to’
More than half of parents who responded to the consultation disagreed with plans for electronic admission and attendance registers, amid concerns the data “could potentially be used punitively”.
Despite this, officials insisted that the records – also accessed by the government and councils – will ensure “better early intervention and enable partners to work together to prevent patterns of absence developing”.
“We have listened carefully to [parents’] concerns around how data will be used and kept secure,” the response document read.
“The proposals around access to attendance and admission register data remain important in identifying pupils who need support, understanding the reasons behind their absence and putting the right support in place as soon as possible.”
The government added that 92 per cent of local authority employees and 85 per cent of school and academy trust staff who responded to the consultation supported the plan. A trial has also proved popular among schools.
A new law will also require schools to inform councils when a pupil has or will miss 15 days of schools because of illness, despite councils saying they already struggle to provide alternative provision because of rising demand.
Current sickness returns are non-statutory.
Shake-up of attendance records
The document noted that the DfE will move forward with changes to simplify how absences are recorded, with a “single list of reasons” a pupil is attending or absent.
This would replace the system that records whether pupils are “present”, “absent”, “attending an approved educational activity” and “unable to attend due to exceptional circumstances”.
The document said the government recognises that current rules do not stipulate “who a school can authorise to supervise an educational activity, which has led to confusion and in some cases inappropriate recording”. The DfE will “refine the definition” on this for use in the final version of the regulations, the papers continued.
Meanwhile, ministers have confirmed that plans to “allow the recording of approved remote education in the attendance register” have been ditched. This came after those responding to the consultation voiced concerns “the proposal did not go far enough to ensure effective safeguarding”.
The government also decided that it will shelve plans to mandate schools to secure local authority approval before deleting a pupil with an EHCP from its admission register.
Attendance fines ‘used inconsistently’
As part of the consultation, sector leaders and parents were also asked for their views on proposals to “improve the consistency of approach” to fines for persistent absence.
Twenty-two councils accounted for more than half of the fixed penalty notices issued in 2020-21.
Ministers wanted penalty notices to be considered following 10 sessions of unauthorised absence in a term, any incidence of unauthorised holiday or any unauthorised absence immediately after a leave of absence.
Under the plan, fines could also be handed to parents if their child is seen in a public place without “reasonable justification” within five days of an exclusion.
20% of pupils persistently absent
Despite the fact that this was linked to the now-abandoned schools bill, officials stressed the government “remains committed to improving the consistency of approach to fixed penalty notices”.
They added that the responses received during the consultation will help inform that work, “including any future legislative change”.
This comes after stats released earlier this month showed one in five pupils were persistently absent from school this year. The attendance gap between poorer children and their better-off peers has widened.
In total, 22.3 per cent of pupils missed more than one in 10 sessions in the 2022-23 academic year. This has barely improved from the 22.5 per cent rate in 2021-22, despite huge focus from schools and politicians.
Prior to the outbreak of Covid, persistent absence rates sat at between 10 and 13 per cent.