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Responsibility for school attendance

Parents in England are responsible for ensuring that their child receives an appropriate full-time education. When a child is registered at school, parents are responsible for securing their child’s regular attendance.

There are reasons that absence from school in term-time may be authorised, most commonly for pupil illness. Authorisation of absence for other reasons is a matter for schools, but should only be granted in exceptional circumstances. It is unlikely to be granted for a family holiday. Parents may be fined for unauthorised absences.

The Department for Education has published non-statutory guidance on Working together to improve school attendance which sets out the relevant roles and responsibilities of schools, academy trusts, governing bodies, and local authorities. Revised guidance has been published to take effect during August 2024.

Concerns about school attendance levels

Since the relaxation of restrictions on schools imposed during the height of the Covid pandemic, there have been concerns about increased absence from school, and in particular an increase in the proportion of pupils with high levels of absence.

At the time of writing, the estimated absence rate for the 2023/24 academic year to date was 7.2%. This is not directly comparable to final data that has been published for previous years.

The most recent final Department for Education attendance statistics for a complete academic year is for 2022/23, when the absence rate for any reason was 7.4%. This is slightly lower than the previous academic year, 2021/22, when it was 7.6%. However, it is higher than in the six years prior to the pandemic (when absence ranged between 4.5% and 4.8%).

In 2022/23, 21.2% of pupils were recorded as “persistently absent” (defined by the Department for Education as missing 10% or more of possible school sessions). This equates to around 1.6 million pupils.

Some groups of pupils are more likely to be absent or persistently absent than others. For example, in 2022/23, 36.5% of free school meal-eligible pupils were persistently absent compared with 15.6% of pupils that were not eligible.

Policy proposals

Following a consultation, in May 2022 the Government published Working together to improve school attendance, non-statutory guidance aimed at supporting schools to maintain high levels of attendance.

Also in May 2022, the Government published a Schools Bill. The Bill as introduced proposed to:

  • Require local authorities to try to improve school attendance in their area, and to have regard to any related guidance produced by the Secretary of State
  • Require all schools in England to have an attendance policy
  • Allow the Secretary of State to make regulations to set out when a fixed penalty notice for school absence should be considered, and for co-ordination of these processes locally
  • Extend the Secretary of State’s power to regulate the granting of leaves of absence from school to include all academies

The Schools Bill, however, was abandoned in December 2022. The Education Secretary cited wider pressures, outside education, for leading to the Bill being dropped. The Education Secretary has said that post-pandemic attendance levels remain a focus for the Government.

A consultation on potential national thresholds for fixed penalty notices was open in June-July 2022. The Government published its response in August 2023. The response did not make any concrete proposals for national thresholds for triggering fixed penalty notices. However, a threshold of 10 sessions of unauthorised absence in a rolling 10 school week period will be introduced from August 2024, within the revised Working together to improve school attendance guidance.

Private Member’s Bill and statutory guidance

In January 2024, Vicky Ford (Con) introduced the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, which would require, among other changes, all schools and local authorities to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The existing guidance is non-statutory.

The Government is supporting the Bill, which has had its Committee Stage in the Commons. Report Stage is scheduled for 17 May 2024.

School attendance and attainment

On average, pupils with higher absence over key stage 4 (year ten to year eleven) had lower GCSE attainment in 2019. This is the most recent DfE data on the link between absence and attainment.

Pupils who did not achieve grades 9-4 in English and maths GCSEs in 2019 had an absence rate of 8.8%, compared with 5.2% among pupils who achieved grade 4 in both subjects, and 3.7% among pupils who achieved grade 5 or above.

Pupils who were persistently or severely absent (who missed more than 10% and 50% respectively of possible school sessions) had lower average attainment. 35.6% of persistently absent pupils, and just 11.3% of severely absent pupils achieved grades 9-4 in English and maths (compared to 67.6% of all pupils).

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