The government’s hardline policy on school absenteeism is out of proportion

The recent decision by Isle of Wight magistrates to throw out the case against Mr Jon Platt, who took his daughter to Disney World during term time, has cast into doubt the hardline policy on school attendance introduced by Michael Gove.

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.

4 thoughts on “The government’s hardline policy on school absenteeism is out of proportion”

  1. Posted 22/10/2015 at 13:48 | Permalink

    I agree there is something unnecessarily totalitarian about persecuting parents for going on family trips during term time. Apart from financial incentives for doing so, there are so many other factors that affect a child’s education, and you mention some of these. Perhaps if schools would avoid watching DVDs when teachers aren’t around or at the end of term. Or if they avoid having e.g. ski trips during term time (how are these different from family ski trips?) then we might have a discussion.

  2. Posted 27/10/2015 at 09:51 | Permalink

    A correspondent has pointed to an earlier DfE report
    which shows (see p58) that authorised family holidays had no effect on KS2 performance: the real problems arise from exclusions and illness. Even at Key Stage 4 there appears to be little effect either. The Nicky Morgan press release seems to have ignored this, lumping all absences together. This is either dishonest or incompetent.

  3. Posted 27/10/2015 at 18:18 | Permalink

    Why am I not surprised, Len? It just seems to me that some people get hot under the collar about school attendance. Teachers find it annoying when some children are missing lessons, but if they have set out their course material as they should do then it’s a simple matter for the child to have to catch up – if indeed it really makes any difference, as you say.

  4. Posted 30/10/2015 at 09:44 | Permalink

    My daughter recently had a week off school with a virus, the school was informed daily, told she had a fever and that she had been to the doctors twice during that time. Shortly afterwards I received an officious letter advising me that my daughters attendance had fallen below 95% and that her attendance would be being ‘monitored’. As a parent to receive a letter implying that in some way we were not fulfilling our duty to our child’s education is very upsetting and stressful. We have never taken our daughter out of school for holidays. At the end of last term all the children with attendance over 95% were taken out for a trip. Those who had did not have that level were left behind, even if they had just been ill. I think to frown upon sickness and celebrate health is an appalling way to behave and to send letters to parents with sick children is on the verge of harassment. I might add I will be taking my letter up with the headmaster!

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