Unauthorised absence during the school term – debunking the myths

You can tell we are heading to the school summer holidays, as the issue of taking children out of school during term time is currently de-rigueur. From listening to parents on this issue, I think there are many misunderstanding and popular myths that surround this issue. I hope this blog will clarify the Council’s position, the role of the school Headteacher, and the law.

Let’s start with the law. Prior to September 2013, when the Government made amendments to The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006; a Headteacher was able to grant leave of absence for the purpose of a family holiday during term time in “special circumstances” of up to ten school days leave per year. This changed in Sept 2013 when the Government made amendments to the 2006 regulations and removed references to family holiday and extended leave as well as the statutory threshold of ten school days.

A Headteacher can still grant absence in exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, it is also up to the Headteacher to determine the number of school days a child can be away from school if the leave is granted.

One popular myth is on The Penalty Notice. The notice is not intended or treated as a ‘on the spot’ fine. In fact criteria has to be met before a notice can be issue. One of the criterion is: the level of absence that is necessary before a Penalty Notice can be issued in any circumstance is 20 or more half-day sessions i.e. the equivalent of 10 school days, of unauthorised absence during any 10 school week period. As laid out in point 3.1 of the Code of Conduct for issuing penalty notices in respect of unauthorised absence from schools. This criterion of issuing the notices has not changed, and is the same as pre-September 2013 when the amendments came into force.

So who can issue the Penalty Notice? The agreement between the schools and the LA is the LA will issue the notice. This is of course once the Headteacher reports this to the LA and the issuing criteria has been met.

A Penalty Notice can be issued as per section 5 of the Code of Conduct:

  • when a pupil has had 20 or more half-day sessions i.e. the equivalent of 10 school days ,of unauthorised absence during any 10 school week period. This includes term time holidays where the parent has been informed in advance that a Penalty Notice may result from such unauthorised absences.
  • when the circumstances of the pupil’s absence meets all the requirements and criteria in the Code of Conduct; and
  • when the issuing of a Penalty Notice does not conflict with other intervention strategies in place or other sanctions already being processed

It should also be noted that when an Authorised Person is considering issuing a Penalty Notice they should bear in mind that the response to a first offence should be a formal warning rather than a Penalty Notice – as laid out in section 5.3 of the code.

Cornwall has been compared to Devon and questions ask why Cornwall has not issued any Penalty Notices (yes zero) when Devon has issued over 800. The answer to that is each LA sets its own Code of Conduct. Other LA’s might take a more draconian stance, and fine quicker, but in Cornwall’s case, we like to take a more balance approach to the issue by working with head teacher’s, governors and parents.

Whist there is still an unacceptable level of unauthorised absence in Cornwall’s schools; absence sessions in primary schools have reduced from 36,100 in 2012 to 23,100 in 2013. A similar pattern happened in secondary schools over the same period with overall absence has reduced from 14,100 to 10,300. These figures are for half-days and not full day’s absence. If you want to compare Cornwall nationally, then Cornwall is below the national average for unauthorised absence for in both primary and secondary schools.

So we must be doing something right in Cornwall and the data shows that more children are now attending school in Cornwall without the need to unduly prosecute parents.

Policy and more information can be found HERE

Changing School Term Times – Yes/No?

As we approach the summer school break, the subject of school term times is again raised. The argument of families being ripped off by holiday companies as they can only take holidays during break has valid points. Anyone who has been a regular reader of this blog will know I raised the issue of term times since 2010. The only success I had, was fixing the spring break from 2019. Though granted this might be made irrelevant under the new Bill

Currently, many schools  have the power to set their own school term times, but from next year when – or should I say if – the Deregulation Bill becomes law, the rules will be further relaxed to allow all schools to set their term dates and times without prior approval from the Local Authority. Under the current system proposed term dates for community and voluntary-controlled schools in Cornwall are decided after consultation from education unions, Devon County Council and Plymouth City Council before the final decision is made by Councillors at Cornwall Council.

My greatest fear with a completely deregulated system is you could see wildy different school term times in Cornwall.  This will lead to other problems. For example, a primary school might set one date, and the secondary another, which could cause a major issues if children are in different schools. There is also the issue of school transport. Too many different term times see an increase in costs for school transport. The current transport bill is £14m per year.

Cornwall Council is currently looking at options for the setting of term dates if the Bill is passed. These are in the early stages, but if any changes are accepted they need to be supported by the schools, Governors, and unions. I would include parents, with some caveats, as the school term times should be based on whats good for the children and their education, rather than just on having a cheaper holiday.  Maybe the Government should be looking how the holiday industry massively increases its charges during the school summer holiday

Even with some deregulation, the term times  for 2015/16 as agreed by partners, including those who are able to set their own dates, have remained in line with the broader holiday dates. Time will tell if the further deregulation see a more fractured term times in Cornwall.

Changes to regulations for absence during the school term

A few weeks ago the Government announced changes to certain educational regulations for absence from school during the school term. This got quite a lot of media coverage which has resulted in the public and Councillors raising the issue with me. In light of these enquiries I thought it would be advantageous for me to explain the actual changes. Before I do, I should say Cornwall Council has no power over this.

The Government has made changes to Penalty notices for truancy and exclusions. This has resulted in an amendment to The Education (penalty Notices) (England) Regulations 2007. The penalty time scales for payment have been reduced from a maximum 42 days to 28 days, and the penalty increased from £50 to £60 if paid within 21 days or £100 to £120 if paid by 28 days at the higher level.

Furthermore, the Government has also amended the 2006 Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations with regard the Head teachers discretion of holidays/absence in term time. The length of absence is determined by the head teacher who should only grant leave of absence in term time if there are exceptional reasons. Previously, the regulations referred to head teachers being able to approve up to 10 days holiday in term time but that threshold has been removed and it is now up to heads how long they will agree and absence in term time.

Hope that helps.

Will School Terms Times Change in Cornwall?

Yesterday, the Government via the DfE announced it would allow all Local Authority schools to change – if they wish – their school term lengths and times from 2015. To date, the local authority is required to set term and holiday dates for community schools, community special schools, voluntary controlled schools, pupil referral units and maintained nursery schools. These powers of changing terms are already afforded to Academy Schools.

To a point I welcome this news, as back in 2010 I started to ask the question on reviewing term times in Cornwall. I was told it was complex and would not be easy to do. In the end the idea – via the scrutiny committee – was not taken forward. However, it was agreed that work would be done on fixing the spring break. And from 2019 it was planned to have a fixed spring break.

The point I don’t really welcome is there is the potential for school to have a multitude of different term times. Which if a family had children at different schools, could lead to difficulties during holidays and childcare. I know Academy Schools can do this already, but as yet, I don’t think any have changed their term times in Cornwall.

I would have preferred a more holistic approach with the LA taking the lead in arranging the consultation, and if there is support for a change, implementing it across schools. These discussions would have to include the Academies, but they are not bound to take on any changes. Doing it this way, would give a more joined up approach to our schools. I guess the DfE thinks differently, which is nothing new.

My view is any change should only be done for the benefit of the students. Others may argue that it could help with working families, the family holiday, childcare and for the economics of the area; like in tourism. A change nationally, might see the end of the six-week tourist season, to a more longer and beneficial economy.

It should be noted, all schools have the power to set the length of the school day with no real restrictions on how long a day should be. The only restriction schools have is to have a minimum 190 school days in a year.