The obvious answer is because I'm 67 and I've been doing this work for almost 30 years! But there are deeper reasons why I've decided to walk away after my final FORUM courses in May. I've worked
with attendance colleagues from hundreds of schools in recent years at my training events and conferences. Many are doing a brilliant job. But I seem rather out of step with the national trend. I
have real concerns about the way parents, and children, are often treated. It's important to do things right; it's not all about improving the numbers at any cost. Children should be the focus, not
the league tables. The DfE (and the media) seem to see all 'absence' as 'truancy' when hardly any of it is. The whole atmosphere is unecessarily confrontational.
I came into education welfare in 1989 with the Children Act. This was a brave attempt to move away from seeing the State as all-powerful when it came to the interests of children and recognise that
parents, and even children themselves, might actually know what is best. Of course there are exceptions and the State should still intervene to protect them when required or when parents are
genuinely failing in their duty of care. Some families do make it difficult to work with them but we have created endless opportunities for conflict that only make things worse. Many just feel
frustrated that they are not being listened to.
The Children Act made it clear that professionals should work in partnership with parents wherever possible. Without that, outcomes will inevitably suffer. When it comes to education, however, recent
changes suggest that it's government, schools and CEOs of Trusts that now make most of the decisions and hold most, if not all, of the cards. Even most local authorities have been keen to flex their
attendance enforcement muscles, if only to remind everyone they're still there!
The Supreme Court ruling on the Platt term-time holiday case was a disaster for these wider relationships, and in my humble opinion, wholly unhelpful. If the law had meant every single session was
required to avoid an offence it would have said so. Now everything depends on the school giving 'permission' for even the shortest absence. Entirely unavoidable or reasonable absences have become a
'problem' because 'they affect our figures'. Arguing that parents are required to follow whatever rules the school decides, has fundamentally undermined the joint approach on which effective
education depends. It has encouraged parents not to tell us the truth for fear of criticism even when they have a legitimate point. Remember, parents don't have to enrol their child in a school at
all if they don't wish to. But once you admit your child to a school you are subject to a whole raft of 'rules'. Even if your child is not of compulsory age you're likely to be treated as if they
are. They cannot be 'unauthorised' absent but that's not what many parents are told.
The irony is that the holiday 'crackdown' hasn't actually worked. It never could. Apart from raising a lot of money for local authorities it has been entirely counter-productive. Holidays only ever
accounted for about 0.6% of all sessions The level now, authorised and unauthorised added together, is just about the same as it was 5 years ago, despite over 400,000 Penalty fines. It's become a tax
that you have to pay to avoid getting a criminal record for just a few days away. Making prosecution the consequence of unpaid Penalties, no matter how good the child's attendance is, has
dramatically lowered the previous threshold for a court appearance. But parents have no other way to contest it; there is no appeals procedure. That is grossly unfair, plus the fact that there's a
genuine postcode lottery at play here; even within the same family one school requests a fine while another authorises the absence for the same holiday. The next-door LA may not use Penalties at all
while some have shown what strikes me as an excessive and even oppressive enthusiasm, dishing them out like confetti.
But your personal and family circumstances don't change because the DfE introduces a new Regulation. It is simply not reasonable, or practically possible, to expect every parent from every
culture, religion, community, job and income level, to take their family holidays at the same peak times. And this emphasis on attacking perfectly reasonable parents for doing nothing wrong
completely ignores the children who are genuinely missing out through complex family and mental health problems, unmet special needs and disaffection with a wholly inadequate curriculum. Many of them
are being overlooked because no simple solution is available. A brown envelope in the post is so much easier.
Of course many schools and individual teachers try very hard to take wider factors into account and do genuinely care about their children. As welfare cuts hit home some are handing out free food,
tampons and even cash. But politically and strategically the pendulum seems to be shifting onto expectations of 'toughness'. Procedures must be 'robust'. Behaviour must conform. Some very
questionable punishments are being applied. We are seeing schools demanding more and more 'evidence' that children are sick as a matter of routine before they will authorise any absence; a decision
that even the DfE says should be left to parents unless there are specific reasons not to. Massive reductions in local support services are leading many schools to take the easy way out by just
sending children home, often illegally, (also absences, but they don't seem to be a problem), or removing them from roll.
The right to challenge an exclusion or to dispute your child's SEN provision have been consistently undermined. Many governors and heads don't know the law on registration and managing attendance
that they are required to follow and often break it. That's just as much an offence as that committed by parents. Local accountability has all but disappeared and some school leaders seem not
to worry about making sure their actions, that can have far-reaching implications, are legally compliant and in the child's best interests. Indeed they seem to expect (and sometimes get) general
public sympathy and political support as if they were above the law.
And what, I wonder, is the effect on our most vulnerable children of all this confrontation and mutual suspicion? The ones who should be our primary focus? Well that seems obvious. When 'every child'
mattered we could at least try to challenge bad practice. Now we just expect to pick up the pieces later at huge cost to us all. That's not what I have always seen as the way a caring
welfare-oriented society should behave. But it's time for me to shut up and let someone else to have a go!
6th December 2018