The government’s hardline policy on school absenteeism is out of proportion
In 2013 the Department for Education started to get tough on school absenteeism, reducing the discretion of headteachers to allow absences for holidays and family visits. This has led to an increasing number of fines – 86,000 in 2014-15, up from 32,000 in 2012-13 – and threats of jail sentences for persistent ‘offenders’.
There is, of course, a venerable liberal case for compulsory education. John Stuart Mill saw it as “almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should…compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen”. But it’s a long way from a few paragraphs in ‘On Liberty’ to the current disposition.
Mill saw his educational requirement as output-based: children should have to reach a certain level of literacy and numeracy and failure to do this would produce sanctions against parents. There was no need to specify how children reached this standard, and certainly no requirement that they spend the years aged 5-18 in formal schooling five days a week for the bulk of the year, with arbitrary dates set for holidays and fines for non-attendance.
It is worth mentioning that Mill wanted parents largely to bear the cost of schooling (except in cases of extreme poverty) rather than having the state provide ‘free’ education with all the concomitant regulation – from Matthew Arnold to Ofsted – which this has produced. Perhaps the Department for Education, and officious headteachers concerned about their Ofsted reports, would be less inclined to punish and criminalise their customers if parents were paying upfront.
The Department for Education bases its policy on the claim that even a short period out of school tends to reduce school performance. In February it published a research report which was argued to support this view. At the time Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, said that ‘the myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research’.
Well, as so often, people read (if indeed Ms Morgan did read) what they want into ‘research’ findings. The data which the February report covers indeed show that there is a continuous decline in performance at Key Stages 2 and 4 with individual reported absence. However there are no statistical controls at all, so this finding is practically worthless.
Other DfE research shows first, that holiday absence only accounts for about 10% of the recorded absence which was shown in the February report: illness is by far the largest factor. Second, the characteristics of those who have poor attendance records are very different from those of average children. Absentees are far more likely to be amongst those entitled to free school meals, those who live in the most deprived areas, those who have special educational needs, and members of some ethnic minorities, notably Irish travellers and Roma. In other words, the raw attendance figures in the February DfE report tell us nothing much about the underlying relationship between attendance and school performance.
Moreover, the emphasis on children’s attendance misses a point that schools themselves have responsibilities. Teachers’ average absence rates from school are very similar to those of pupils, and of course teacher absence potentially damages the performance of large numbers of children. When you add in the disruptive effects of training days, closure for pointless strikes or for a few flakes of snow, schools have room for improvement without unnecessary browbeating of parents and stigmatising those who don’t conform.
The Department for Education should take the Isle of Wight case as an opportunity to think again about their policy on school attendance.
Prof J.R. Shackleton is the IEA’s Editorial and Research Fellow, and a Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham.