Opinion: Parents want a say on school attendance policy

I’ve written previously (here and here)about school attendance policy. Following the hand in of a 127,000 strong petition to the Department for Education (DfE) in October 2013, Craig Langman and I co-founded the independent campaign group “Parents Want A Say” (PWAS). Craig’s petition called for the reversal of the term time absence regulations and has now grown organically to over 220,000. The group is chaired by John Hemming MP, obtained an extremely well attended Westminster Hall debate in February 2014 and is supported by Liberty, such is the extreme nature of some decisions being made by schools under the new rule. We enjoy significant support in the media due to the feedback from audiences.

The DfE continues to misinterpret the statistical evidence base for the policy, as in Nicky Morgan’s misleading statement last weekend. Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University confirms this. The attendance and attainment debate is far more complex than Nicky Morgan apparently believes and Heads and parents are deeply concerned at this simplistic approach.

In the latest twist, the DfE’s redefinition of persistent absenteeism from 85% to 90% attendance has led to letters from some schools demanding sick notes after 3 days of absence or 1 where the absence is close to a school holiday. Included in these letters are mention of fines and court action in relation to unauthorised absence.

A GP’s letter to the Times this week outlined the medical profession’s concern over this. (Would GPs like the same power as Headteachers to fine and take to court patients who don’t follow their advice?)

Feedback from viewers/listeners of BBC Breakfast & Radio 5 Live’s coverage with yours truly this weekend confirmed widespread dislike of this latest move. See BBC Breakfast’s facebook – it’s worth noting the quantum of response cf other topics.

Parents’ comments on this and other issues can also be found on the PWAS Facebook page. The page has a weekly reach of between 10,000 – 100,000 depending on media coverage. This level of reach has been achieved by a handful of volunteers, testimony to the depth of feeling on the issue. The most distressing cases involving domestic violence, contact orders, disability are by private message, so not visible. NB for those with grammar-police tendencies, PWAS doesn’t believe that imperfect punctuation and spelling should restrict the right to free speech.

Genuine partnership between parents, pupils and schools will make our education system stronger. Discounting the views of parents and threatening them with fines and court action if they fail to obey isn’t partnership building, it’s bullying.

It has always been PWAS’ contention that current attendance policy doesn’t target the children who are genuinely in need of help. This week I’ve had feedback from a Headteacher that the pressure to clamp down on every absence is drawing scarce resource away those children who are in actual physical and moral danger.

As a LibDem, I believe we should be distancing ourselves from this policy and fining regime. The use of statistics gives evidence based policy a bad name; misuse of the NHS; focus should be on engaging constructively with those who need help most; our default position should be trusting parents; we should champion the right to family life. We should be listening to grassroots. “Trusting parents” would be a widely supported strand in our manifesto. There are something like 7.5m children in state education in England alone. That’s an awful lot of parents.

* Karen Wilkinson was Parliamentary Candidate for Kingwood in June 2017

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  • Schools routinely treat parents with contempt. It’s one of many reasons why the rest of society has so little respect for teachers.

  • stuart moran 2nd Mar '15 - 6:02pm

    wow Chris

    That much take the biscuit as ‘most generalised post with absolutely no evidence to back it up except that I have a chip on my shoulder with regards to teachers and everyone must SURELY think the same as me of the day’

    If you are serious then I think you need to get out more!

  • Stuart – you probably need to socialise with people who aren’t teachers.

  • stuart moran 2nd Mar '15 - 6:34pm


    You are making me laugh on this cold Monday night……such ignorance!

  • stuart moran 2nd Mar '15 - 6:38pm

    I will wait for any evidence at all to back up your ridiculous comment but, in the absence of any, I will post mine


    I suggest you stop socialising with whoever it is you find to socialise with!

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Mar '15 - 10:43pm

    I don’t understand how taking children out of school for one, two or three weeks in order to save their parents a few quid is OK.

    Top tip, if you can’t afford a particular holiday – pick a cheaper one !

  • The importance of attendance decreases with the brightness of children . Some children who are very bright can skip through text books on their own and hardly need teachers: some children who struggle academically , especially in maths could miss two weeks of schooling and never catch up. For many careers a grade C in GCSE Maths is needed. If a child failed to obtain Grade C in Maths and therefore failed to obtain any apprenticeships, I cannot imagine many parents blaming themselves.

    The Chinese tend say people are strong or weak at subject and accept those who are weak, have to work harder.

  • As you say Charlie, a child’s innate abilities will be one of the factors affecting “attainment” – for which read exam results. So does the quality of teaching (see Sutton Trust research on that one – up to a year’s difference in learning between a good teacher and a poor teacher in a single year!) and whether issues such as dyslexia and dyscalculia are picked up. When they are not, and I am staggered by how often that is the case, a child’s experience of school and learning can be profoundly negative.

  • Hail The Tripod 4th Mar '15 - 2:02pm

    @A Social Liberal – You’re so sure that people could only want to take holiday during term time to save money. Many people have relatives who live abroad, who may wish to celebrate important occasions during term time, and there are culturally significant events around the world that are incompatible with UK school holidays.

    I have recently been fined for “allowing” my wife to visit her parents with our children for Chinese New Year, to take probably the last opportunity to do the traditional visit to their ancestors remains at the Taoist temple as part of the ceremonies. I don’t feel bad that they missed out on learning about Chinese New Year at school, I suspect watching the dragon dance live is a more visceral experience than watching it on video. I don’t even feel bad about the cost of the fine as i’ll save easily ten times that amount by not contributing to the school fundraising ever again. I do feel bad that I have nothing but loathing for the school faculty now, and my sons will almost certainly suffer as a result of that dis-function. It’s hard to see who could possibly have benefited from this action.

  • Sandra Dixon 4th Mar '15 - 8:13pm

    @A Social Liberal – and anyone else who is interested – I think you should read more of the comments on the PWAS site before you make generalisations like that. The cost of holidays is only one aspect of this issue and not the major one for most people.

    Please take the time to read below.

    Think about those people who maintain schools during the school holidays – they cannot do this maintenance in term time and have to work during the school holidays so when are they supposed to have a family holiday.
    Think about all those shift workers in various essential services – police, fire, NHS, refuse, sewage, power etc. – where would the country be if they all had to take the same weeks off with not enough employees, who don’t have children of their own, left to cover.
    Think about those small companies who have a limited number of staff who could not possibly allow all their staff to have two weeks off in the six week period of the summer school holiday – their company would go under.
    Think about those people who actually provide the UK holiday venues – they need to be there throughout the UK holiday season – they cannot take their families on holiday during school holidays.
    Think about the immense distress this ruling brings to those families who now cannot have a whole-family holiday together – which family member/s is/are deprived most – Mum, Dad, or the children themselves? For me it’s the children every time!
    Think about the UK holiday venues themselves – parents are no longer able to take their children on holiday in term time, therefore during term time the holiday accommodation and attractions catering primarily for children are running empty – no income.
    Think about the fact that if everyone had to take their family on holiday during the school holidays only, there would not be enough holiday beds for everyone at the same time – and the spin off from that could force UK holidays to be even more expensive.
    Think about the actual holiday villages, towns, counties themselves – without the continual income from their holiday-makers throughout the season their community income will go down, venues will close, people will lose their jobs in areas that are traditionally seasonal as it is, and areas could become extremely deprived – requiring more financial aid from the Government than they get now.
    Think about how educational holidays can be – children can learn about different areas of the UK, the beauty of the rural country, farms, etc. if they are town children or the architecture and culture of towns if they are rural children, the geology, of the hills, valleys, rivers and the coast, the history of castles and archaeological sites, like Hadrian’s Wall or Roman ruins, the beauty and poets of the Lake District, nature, environmental science and issues, how people lived as in recreated historical villages, and how to live in dwellings other than a traditional house or flat, e.g. a tent or a caravan. There are so many opportunities to learn whilst on a UK holiday alone even before you think of going abroad. Not everyone takes a holiday to sit on a hot beach all the time and even children on those holidays learn about travel, trains, boats, planes, passports, visas, airports, the Channel Tunnel, etc. etc. Education is not restricted to schooling.

    And now, think about those families whose children go to private school or who are home-schooled or those who attend some form of stage-school, who do not have to adhere to the same formal periods of education as state schools – what about the periods of education that they are missing in comparison.

    This ruling was brought in without a proper impact assessment – it only takes some logical thought processing to see the devastation that this ruling could cause to both families and the county as a whole.

    I apologise for the length of this comment but these issues need to be raised and most people who don’t suffer from these issues themselves don’t even understand that they exist.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Mar '15 - 9:21am

    @Hail The Tripod
    “I have recently been fined for “allowing” my wife to visit her parents with our children for Chinese New Year”

    Perhaps a way round this sort of problem would be for the family, in co-operation with the school, to teach the other pupils about their experiences after such a trip – so that all the pupils gain something of educational value.

    There is a big difference between taking time out of school for a very special occasion such as you describe and taking time out to laze around on a beach.

  • Hail The Tripod 6th Mar '15 - 12:18pm

    @Nonconformistradical – Is it that different? I’m lucky in that I can afford to do nice things for my kids, take them away at premium times. Going on a beach holiday during term time because you cannot reasonably afford to go otherwise is sub-optimal, sure; but just because it’s not the best scenario, is it actually a bad thing? The government may have cracked down on “the problem” of authorised absences for holidays, but despite having all the figures available, and presenting a lot of stats on fairly fairly extreme total absence figures, they have been very careful not to present figures for low levels of authorised absence and results. To me that’s suspicious.

    I’m actually planning to put in a FOI request to get these figures. I’m expecting that 5 days authorised absence a year correlates to an insignificant reduction in grades to the average, but i’m really kind of hoping for a mildly positive correlation.

  • Christopher Harrison 12th Aug '15 - 8:54am

    @Hail The Tripod

    I was afraid of this. I currently live in Malaysia. My daughter will be born in September. I am currently deciding whether she would receive a better education here or back in the UK. If she will be denied the chance to experience her heritage of Chinese New Year with her grandparents once a year I think she’d be absolutely robbed (culturally, educationally and emotionally) by the UK education system. Looks like Malaysia it is. Malaysian schools would never doubt for one second that it would be a good idea for her to take time off once a year to experience Christmas in the UK. My parents won’t be too happy about it – but I (unlike the UK education system) will be looking out for the best interests of my daughter.

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