WHITTER Questions and comment always welcome
We seem to have had more than the usual number of stories this year about schools 'cracking down' on behaviour, uniform etc. Maybe it's because there are so many new heads, or new schools, keen to make a mark. But maybe it's also a sign of the growing difficulty schools are having in meeting every child's needs. Budgets are under pressure, support services declining and academic expectations rising. Many children will find fitting into such a robust regime a challenge - the rapidly rising exclusion figures show that we are still failing to address the educational entitlement of every child, including many of those with SEN, mental health issues etc. I've already heard of schools sending some Y11s out on permanent 'study leave' - it's only September!
What worries me particularly is what feels like a growing culture of blaming every one else; children, parents, other professionals, 'society' etc. I really don't believe that those most disaffected with education are likely become more positive because they keep getting told off or are are expected to comply with a discipline policy that runs to over 20 pages! Minor irritants like the colour of socks or 'inappropriate' haircuts may be annoying, but can we not find a way of dealing with them that avoids sending children home - some of whom may be very reluctant to return? Is 'unquestioning obedience' really the best way to bring the best out of everyone? Are teachers and schools never at fault? As usual I'd just like to see a little more balance. It won't work otherwise, no matter how strident the language. 14.09.17
I'm afraid I have little sympathy with the couple who have now withdrawn both their boys from their primary school because another boy in the class sometimes comes dressed as a girl. Frankly, it's none of their business what other children and parents do. They know nothing about the story for this child. If he/she is going through gender realignment, or simply wishes to dress that way, (and quite rightly we don't know the details) that is a matter for that family. The idea that other parents should have been consulted about it first is nonsense. Would these parents accept the same intrusion into their family life?
The only reason they have given for this huge decision is that their son was 'confused' by the situation. Well explain it to him then. 'A few children may start off as boys and become girls. Some like to wear dresses. What difference does it make to you? You can still be their friend!' It seems that their 'Christian' values mean they don't accept any fluidity in gender; you're made a boy or a girl. If they want to deny modern medical and psychological knowledge that's up to them. But we all have to tolerate other people's views that we don't share. What next? Remove your child because another child wears the hijab, uses a wheelchair or doesn't go to church? Our society is diverse. What are we teaching our children by not helping them to recognise it? Not everyone has to be like me! 11.09.17
What will you be saying to your new Y11s? Work hard. Crucial year. Don't be absent. And then you can have weeks of spare time at the end! Is there any evidence that sending most 15/16 year-olds home to study before (or after) their exams does anything to improve their performance? I'm not convinced. Here are some study leave facts to inform your planning:
- Study leave can only be offered, not imposed. If parents still want their child in school you must make a properly supervised programme available. Wouldn't it be better to use the time for more structured revision, test papers, individual tutorials etc. for everyone?
- All such leave is authorised absence (S) NOT an attendance (B) because they might not actually be studying! If the data was counted to the end, they'd all be PAs!
- You must still mark a twice-daily register for every pupil until the end of JUNE. Even though the data is only published, at present, to the last Friday in May, it will still appear on the student's individual whole year record as absence.
- If you give leave when the exams have finished, what are they studying for? Wouldn't it be better to use that time constructively to prepare for what's coming next? I've often heard it said that this time doesn't matter because the DfE doesn't count it. But maybe it's not only about the data!
It might need a change of emphasis or a clear explanation that things have changed. But the end of Y11 is not meant to be the end of education, just a stepping stone. They do still get 2 months off. Isn't that enough? 04.09.17
I've been asked to say a little more about my point at the end of the last post about power or partnership in defining the relationship between schools and parents. So here's something to think about over the summer. Why have we started seeing so many perfectly ordinary parents as a problem? It seems like any absence has suddenly become unacceptable, even those the school has previously authorised. That never used to be the case. Our work was targeted, not aimed at everyone indiscriminately or based only on a rigid use of data whatever the circumstances. It has all gone far too far and many home-school relationships have been ruined as a result.
The Supreme Court said that parents should always obey the school's rules. I've often seen similar statements in letters home or attendance policies. Fair enough; co-operation sets a good example. But that doesn't give schools the right to make up whatever rules they want. DfE Guidance is often ignored, or not even read. Insisting on a doctor's note for every illness would be an obvious example. Parents whose children are not of compulsory age can't be treated as if they were. A 'strict' rule on lateness could lead to parents being judged to have broken the law when the school bus fails to arrive or gets stuck in traffic. Parents have rights too and LAs and schools often don't abide by them; like not using a lawful exclusion process or failing to meet a child's SEN as required.
The law clearly works both ways, not only in one direction. It is, for example, the same level of offence if a headteacher fails to keep the registers in accordance with the Regulations as it is for a parent to fail to ensure their child attends 'regularly'. Some LAs now seem to be planning to impose Penalty fines for even just occasional lateness, (only possible for arrival AFTER registration has closed of course; only Us not Ls). But such enthisiasm for getting people into trouble can look petty and vindictive. I don't often hear the same emphasis on ensuring there are no illegal errors in our registration or enforcement practice. 'Zero tolerance' of holidays goes beyond the legal requirement; heads must consider in every case whether the 'exceptional' criteria apply. Overall absence cannot be used as evidence for issuing a Penalty fine or in a subsequent prosecution, only those that are unauthorised, but many parents are told the opposite. I would just like to see a little more balance, openness and honesty.
I make no excuses for those parents who are deliberately behaving irresponsibly, but doing what the school 'requires', every time without fail, is not always reasonable. This atmosphere of suspicion and confrontation only encourages them (and their children) to be deceitful because they believe they won't get a fair hearing if they tell the truth. It is entirely counter-productive in the end. We no longer live in a deferential society where everyone is expected to be quietly submissive to authority. Institutions, and those who run them, make mistakes too. Power tends to corrupt. Perhaps a little more self-criticism and pastoral understanding might actually be more helpful, before we rush too quickly to condemnation. 12.07.17
So the Platt case is finally over. A conditional discharge. Where now? Schools and LAs can, if they wish (and not all do), issue even more fines over just a few days' untypical holiday. But many parents will continue to take it anyway; either because they have no choice or because it's still worth it financially. I was told by the DfE advisor when this system was introduced that it would act as a deterrent and we wouldn't see prosecutions for very small amounts of absence. That clearly hasn't worked because it can't. Life isn't that simple. 9 million children and their parents cannot all go on holiday at the same time. Jobs, family commitments, cultural traditions etc, let alone the fact that poorer families are entitled to holidays too, all get in the way, and they will carry on doing so.
For most parents this is nothing to do with 'truancy' and does NOT in my opinion, make them suitable for action under the 'Anti-social Behaviour' Act. They are not ignoring their children's education or putting their whole future at risk; they're just juggling conflicting priorities and school doesn't always win. We can continue to make a massive fuss about it or we can keep a sense of proportion and focus on those children who really are missing education, often because of complex unmet needs. We can concentrate our action on those parents who genuinely justify it or are repeatedly deceitful, not those who have committed only an occasional minor infringement. We can make our schools places built around the enjoyment of learning or we can look forward to endless pointless conflict. Mr Platt has lost his case but the anger among thousands of perfectly reasonable parents certainly hasn't gone away. I just don't think it's worth it over 0.5% of sessions. (G and H codes combined). It was 0.6% when all this started! Parents didn't take massive advantage then; why would they now? Is education about power, or partnership? I know which I would choose.24.06.17
I've heard and seen so many stories recently about letters parents have received from schools and LAs that give totally misleading, and in some cases, entirely untrue information. A 'bluff' - which we know isn't true but we hope parents don't - is never acceptable.
There is NO required level of attendance that all parents have to meet. Everything depends on why their child has been absent. And ONLY UNAUTHORISED absences are relevant to whether an offence has been committed, not the overall percentage. According to schools' own data 3 out of 4 absences are legitimate and agreed. The parent has done nothing wrong, so be careful not to criticise them. It just sets up unnecessary barriers.
Being described as a (potential) persistent absentee so far this year (or over any other arbitrary period) should form no part of the legal process. The definition of a PA is under 90% attendance over the WHOLE school year (measured only at the end). It includes everyone, whatever the reasons. It has nothing to do with whether the threshold for legal action has been met. Sickness is a legitimate reason for absence and authorised absences DO NOT COUNT as evidence.
Headteachers CAN give leave for a holiday, or for any other pastoral reason. Many still seem to claim they have no choice, or blame the LA, but its their decision. So tell parents what you mean by 'exceptional' circumstances so that they know what the rules are, rather than claiming 'zero tolerance' is the only option. And be realistic and fair. We are a multi-cultural society of largely working parents; people do not necessarily live their whole lives based around school term dates.
4 year-olds (and 5 year-olds still before the relevant dates), and sixth-formers, CANNOT be marked unauthorised absent, nor can their parents be threatened with legal action. And, please write your letters in words that people can actually understand!! Just saying something in important-sounding language doesn't make it right! 22.06.17 (edited)
This 4 year-old wasn't just absent; he and his mother had both died in their flat. I make no criticism of this individual school, because there's not enough information here to go on, though it looks like a Police 'safe and well' check should have been requested if there was no explanation for him being off school and no-one had seen him recently. But this terribly sad and distressing case illustrates a vital point about why we bother with attendance work at all. It's not about the figures and fines. Putting so much energy into those families who have just had a few days' off on holiday has been a massive distraction. Over 200,000 fines but what about the REAL issues? Managing attendance and absence is about the welfare of children, even if they're not of compulsory age; it's about doing what needs doing pastorally to meet their needs and ensure their safety. That should be the focus, not what the computer says. Every school needs robust procedures and a commitment to caring for every child, not just a reliance on standard letters, the odd phone-call and making the data look as good as possible. That is the mark of an 'outstanding' school. DfE, Ofsted, all headteachers, governors, MATs and local authorities, please note.
On Tuesday (16th) I did a free webinar on the Jon Platt case for FORUM Training. There were a few key points I wanted to get over. They keep cropping up at my training events.
- If the child is not of compulsory age absences cannot be marked unauthorised and parents cannot be threatened with legal action.
- After 25 years of the current system I'm still not sure that all headteachers understand that THEY have to decide whether or not to authorise any absence. They can still do so, even for a holiday, if the circumstances are considered 'exceptional'.
- A Penalty Notice does not have to follow, even if the absences are left unauthorised.
- Any authorised absences DO NOT COUNT as evidence and overall attendance is irrelevant in deciding whether legal action should be taken, only the amount of unauthorised absence.
- Schools and LAs must have clear policies, not make it up as they go along. The LA Code of Conduct is crucial.
- No-body has to do anything. Those taking the decisions have to be prepared to justify them, not blame someone else.
- And it would help if some other way of responding to unpaid Penalties were found. Prosecution is a sledghammer to crack a nut if only a few days are involved.
- Mr Platt is in court again on June 23rd so the debate goes on! 17.05.17
If there's one area of children's welfare that I'd like to see addressed before I eventually retire, it's child employment. I have been banging on about this for 20 years and nothing has changed. We have a completely outdated regulatory system that is almost universally ignored. I keep hearing stories of children working, some of which are paraded as examples to be admired, but which are entirely illegal. The laws haven't been significantly updated for over 80 years. Children under school-leaving age can only work in a commercial business with a licence from the local authority but few seem to bother. 13 is the minimum age; Sunday hours are still restricted to just 2 - and there are so many rules about what they cannot do. But no-one cares whether or not they are enforced. Maybe most of the time it doesn't matter, so let's get rid of the current framework. The illusion of a system is worse than no system at all. But that would leave enormous loopholes for genuinely dangerous and exploitative work that no-one would know about. That can't be right. So we need a modern system for the 21st Century but no politician has ever shown the slightest interest in reform. Isn't it about time? 02.05.17
This is not a party political point but Jeremy Corbyn's proposal for 4 more bank holidays, all in term-time, potentially on any day of the week and mostly in the winter, is frankly bonkers! It would just create more disrupted weeks for schools, timetabling nightmares and confusion for parents. Different holiday patterns in the schools your children attend are already proving a real problem and some might change their breaks or INSET days to fit in, but others wouldn't. Those weeks would probably become more peak times for the holiday industry or some parents might be tempted to take the extra day or two. Some people have welcomed the opportunity to spend time as a family (except for those who would still have to work), but late February to May would be a constant round of half-weeks and holidays somewhere. He might be assuming that this will help parents but I'm not convinced. And 4 days would be lost altogether. Apparently that doesn't matter - it did last week! 24.04.17
So now we know. ‘Regular’ attendance at school means whatever each individual school defines it to mean! An offence is then committed in relation to any absence, unless the headteacher has authorised it. (That gives the parent an immediate defence). 2 key questions, however, remain. Under what circumstances is it reasonable for schools to allow an absence as ‘authorised’? Clearly there will be some. And when should local authorities take legal action if no authorisation has been given? They do not have to do it every time.
We are really no clearer than when all this started. Each individual headteacher still has to decide. They create the offence so they have to know the law – many don’t - and apply it fairly. What will be their criteria? Each local authority still has to determine its own policy and threshold. How? This variation is what irritates many parents. It feels like a lottery. Some LAs have issued thousands of Penalty fines; some virtually none. I’m not sure that will change.
I am still of the view that the Government made a serious mistake in making prosecution the required response if the parent chooses not to pay. That dramatically raises the stakes, (though parents cannot be sent to prison as some claim if the action is under s.444(1)). But it has brought parents into the Court system whose children’s absence would never have been seen as sufficiently problematic in the past. This is what has caused the resentment, as much as the Penalty fines themselves. Maybe some other consequence of non-payment would be more appropriate, but parents must have some right of appeal. Penalties may have been imposed unfairly, or when the ‘exceptional’ criteria have not been properly considered. There certainly seem to have been some examples which are wholly unreasonable.
I hope local authorities will now show restraint, not see the Supreme Court ruling as an excuse to go over the top. The judgement suggests they adopt a 'sensible' prosecution policy. Teacher unions, and even many headteachers, do not support using Penalties indiscriminately, as some LAs clearly do. Will new DfE Guidance be needed to clarify this? Legal action should only ever be the right thing to do in that particular set of circumstances. Any automatic process is bound to lead to anomalies. Schools and parents need to work together in the best interests of children. Conflict rarely makes things better.
Perhaps more parents will now opt out of the school system to home educate, as they have every right to do. Those who can afford it may choose the private sector where LAs will leave them alone. Some may decide to take even more days off each time because they may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. Some may refuse to pay and hope to clog up the Magistrates Courts as a result. Most will pay up if required and go anyway. Poorer parents will probably give up all hope of a proper family holiday, or be tempted to be economical with the truth and hope they get away with it. None of this will necessarily improve the educational or other outcomes for children. That should be the only focus, not improving the figures for Ofsted or fining as many parents as possible, just because we can. 06.04.17
The absence data for school year 2015-16 is out (England only). The overall figures are virtually identical to the year before. I suspect this is about as good as it can get. This level of sustained achievement is mostly due to careful and thoughtful working by schools, in partnership with children, parents and other colleagues. The BBC News website headline was 'Holidays behind 25% of school absences'. In fact about a quarter of the UNAUTHORISED absence is down to holidays but only about 8% of the TOTAL absence, whether unauthorised or not. They amount to 0.4% of all the possible sessions - that's one in over 200. It was only 0.6% when all this started 4 years ago. (This latest data is largely before the Jon Platt case threw the system into confusion. We'll have to wait to see what the effect of that might be).
We all just need to calm down! Like sickness, some holidays in term-time are unavoidable and reasonable, depending on the parents' circumstances. But what are we doing about all the other absences? Does your school understand the individual reasons behind the codes and figures? Only a very small percentage is down to marks that indicate failings by parents. Most are authorised so where should your priorities be? How are you responding and is it working? Don't worry so much about the data - focus on what's really going on. Updated 29.03.17
If there's one issue that keeps cropping up at my training events and Conferences, it's this: a child cannot be marked as 'unauthorised' absent, nor can their parents commit any offence, if the child/young person is not of compulsory age. Judging also by parents' comments on social media, many schools, and even some local authorities, do not seem to appreciate this basic point. Compulsory age does not begin until the term AFTER the child is 5 and it ends on the last Friday in June in the school year in which the child becomes 16. If your school's computer generates standard letters, (not the best practice in my opinion), make sure they only go to those parents who should receive them. Of course we want to encourage good attendance outside this period, (though the child may not be ready for full-time yet and a sixth-former may have a part-time job as well). But it cannot be enforced. Pastoral systems and informal agreements are fine; but threats of legal action have no place. Parents do not have to ask 'permission' for the child or young person to be absent, though it is clearly helpful if they keep the school informed. The whole of Reception year, (even those children who have become of CSA), and sixth formers, are therefore NOT INCLUDED in the school's published figures. It is a crucial distinction. 22.03.17
A challenging, if I hope stimulating, session at yesterday's FORUM Pastoral Leaders Conference in Manchester. I was trying to suggest that the same caring principles should apply to our attendance work as to any other issue. Children's needs are often complex; many families' lives do not always fit in with schools' expectations; absence has many different reasons behind it. So why do we so easily adopt a punitive approach - over 200,000 fines in the last couple of years and the threat of many more. All absence has now become a 'problem' or an indicator of parental failure. According to the PM there are millions of families who are 'just about managing'. But if they want to take a short, occasional holiday, at the only time they can possibly afford it, that makes them worthy of a criminal conviction. It just doesn't make any sense.
Surely we should be much more understanding and ensure our response actually matches the need? Days lost for other reasons seem rather less important. If every child has a place in our education system, then some will pose additional challenges that we have a duty to addresss. 10% will have a significant mental health issue at some point and may find full-time attendance impossible. So shall we just push them out the door and forget about them because Ofsted might criticise our figures? Obviously not, though I'm sure it happens. The needs of the school can seem to be taking over from the needs of the pupils. But (note to self!) I must explore the answers more carefully next time, (March 28th in London), not just ask the awkward questions. 10.03.17
Lots of useful issues and questions raised at yesterday's FORUM 'Attendance Matters' Conference in London. (There's a repeat in Birmingham on March 30th; click here for places). My overall impression was that there is a great deal of thoughtful, caring and effective work going on in schools up and down the country to help children and their parents to address the causes of absence. Schools are investing in skilled and compassionate professionals who are making a real difference, often in very challenging circumstances. Very few of the colleagues at that event seemed to be over-worried about an occasional term-time holiday or were passionately committed to putting as many parents through the Courts as possible! It seems, though, they might not be typical.
Another twist in the whole sorry tale of Penalty Notices is that cases are now being reported where parents have been convicted because headteachers, LAs and even Courts are apparently refusing to accept their child was sick unless they provide a doctor's note. There is no requirement on parents to evidence every illness or on doctors to provide notes. Most illnesses do not require a GP appointment (if you can get one). The BMA specifically says that doctors do not provide notes for children's absence. This is wholly unreasonable as a blanket policy. There must be evidence that the child was not ill to justify not authorising. Some LAs also seem to include L marks as evidence - which are attendances. I've also seen letters threatening legal action where children are not yet of compulsory age. This is beyond a joke.
I sometimes think that the DfE, and some schools and local authorities, have got the emphasis entirely wrong. We seem to be so obsessed with the absences that are not really any great problem that we are failing to support and recognise those who are actually doing something about those that matter most. Much more is involved in doing anything worthwhile than just sending out a brown envelope and collecting the fine. 02.03.17 (updated)
Good piece by Giles Coren in the Times today about a young girl and her engagement in professional modelling. There are obvious risks involved here, though I'm not sure I would go as far as some in calling it child abuse. But the story, as he notes, illustrates the fact that some reasons for absence from school seem to be much less of a problem than others. Time off to work as a model, or play snooker, or be a ball boy or girl at Wimbledon seem to be OK. A few days off for a much-needed family holiday at the only time parents can afford it or get the time off work is, of course, unacceptable!
On a wider point, we still leave most commercial child employment outside school hours unregulated, even though all of it is illegal unless the LA has issued the required permit to the employer. The law is hopelessly out of date (a 1920 Act about work in 'industrial underertakings' is still in force) but no-one seems remotely bothered about this aspect of children's welfare. If you work in a secondary school, why not find out what part-time jobs your students have before the end of Y11 and then maybe check with your local authority what view they take on regulation? I suspect that many won't have anyone left who even knows what you're talking about! 25.02.17
Supreme Court hearing term-time holiday update 31.01.17
Whatever the eventual outcome of this case, my own view (for what its worth) is that the variation in response by schools and LAs won't change. Some have always been more enthusiastic about Penalty Notices than others. Each LA will still have to define their criteria. But the whole educational establishment seems to be becoming increasingly hostile and uncaring towards parents, at least in part under the pressure imposed by targets and tables. That cannot be in the best interests of their children. Some are being prosecuted and made to feel like criminals over literally 2 or 3 days' absence. If the few days away are an isolated example, not part of a wider trend of unauthorised absences, I do not see why such a punitive response is required, even if it is legal. Holidays can still be authorised if the 'exceptional' criteria do genuinely apply or they can be left unauthorised but no further action taken.
Jon Platt is right in his Facebook post. If he loses (and he thinks he will), this will be a very hollow victory for the DfE. There will be a climate of trying to beat what many see as an unfair system. Those parents who can afford it will opt for the private sector where the LA will leave them alone. Some of those who can't do that may choose to withdraw their children to home educate - even if only for a short time - as they have every right to do. Most, as before this case, will still go away anyway and just regard the fine, if they get one, as an annoying 'holiday tax' and pay it. That at least avoids them having a conviction. Some may feel that as they only get one fine for each period of unauthorised leave they may as well take a few more days. But this increasingly conflict-ridden atmosphere is all so unnecessary. It does nothing to address any of the real absence issues, so what exactly will have been achieved?
Term-time holiday update: 27.01.17
Now even the Isle of Wight lead councillor for children doesn't believe they should be pursuing this action in the Supreme Court next week. Despite this, the DfE seems determined to press ahead. The whole thing has become a farce, driven by an unwillingness by Government to admit that perhaps they got it wrong. A limited amount of occasional holiday leave does not necessarily affect that child's eventual outcomes as they keep repeating. Heads should be allowed some greater discretion and legal action should be reserved only for those parents who consistently flout the law, not those who just have a few days' away together when their child is in school all the rest of the time. Most local authorities now seem to have accepted that not every unauthorised absence has to lead to a Penalty Notice. This should always have been the approach.
Not everyone's life revolves around school terms and this whole issue is causing untold damage to parent/school relationships. Take a look at Jon Platt's holiday fines Facebook page. Whether you agree with him or not there are countless ordinary and law-abiding parents who feel that school is a hostile place that doesn't care about them. Now it's also about schools insisting on doctors' notes for all illnesses - which is not always reasonable, necessary or possible. The targets have become more important than the children. We can live with a bit of occasional absence without the world coming to an end. It really is quite simple and someone should just stop this truck before it hurtles over the cliff taking us all with it.
The Supreme Court will hear the Government-funded appeal in the Isle of Wight case about term-time holidays on January 31st. I really hope this will see an end to the whole sorry saga, but I'm not sure it will. Personally I have never supported prosecution if there are no other unauthorised absences as well. But even if the final ruling is that such Penalties are lawful, are they fair? Each LA will still have to decide. It is the DfE's fault for setting up the system as they did, which requires LAs to prosecute parents if they choose not to pay or wish to contest the decision; (there is no other way to appeal). But the number of absences involved is sometimes minimal - and remember, authorised absences do NOT COUNT as part of the evidence. Only the UNAUTHORISED absences can be used, no matter what the overall attendance level.
Selecting just a short unrepresentative period, when the child is in school all the rest of the time, is clearly unreasonable. On top of all that, it is simply impossible for every family to go on holiday in the same 6 weeks. Are poorer families not entitled to any holidays at all? The country needs working parents the whole year round; the shifts have to be shared out. We are a multicultural society with different religious and cultural traditions which are not reflected in the pattern of school terms. 14 out of 15 absences are for other reasons; many are initiated by schools. So why so much fuss just about these? We need to stop this madness now before a whole generation of children comes to think that education is all about endless conflict, not co-operation.
The way forward here is obvious, whatever the Court decides. Allow heads to exercise a little more discretion to grant leave for the occasional holiday without fear of criticism by Ofsted and the DfE. Then mark any other sessions taken without permission as unauthorised, with a formal warning about future action in the event of further examples. If parents regularly take an excessive amount of leave without a good reason then by all means have some system of financial penalty, but NOT one that involves a court appearance under the Education Act 1996, just some kind of civil debt procedure. Prosecutions should be reserved for examples of serious faliure to ensure that children are properly educated, as was the case before all this. Surely it can't be beyond us to find an acceptable compromise? 22.12.16
More calls today for Councils to 'do more' to keep track of children who go missing from education; (i.e. not just those are 'absent' as the Victoria Debyshire programme this morning included). 'MIssing' children are those whose whereabouts are unknown - they and their parents/carers have moved away, maybe abroad; the house is empty and no-one knows where they are. It is not reasonable for schools to keep them on roll indefinitely as some LAs seem to expect; this may actually prevent their circumstances from being properly investigated. The problem is, you don't have to tell the Council when you move and where you're going; people just up and go for all sorts of reasons. And we have no national database of all children to work from, (we do for all all cars which are obviously far more important). You don't even have to send your child to school at all so no-one may know about them. Politicians have consistently refused to introduce systems for keeping track of where children are on grounds of personal privacy. So if you want the job done, give Councils the tools. 30.11.16
It can't really be a surprise to anyone that football has been a setting in which children are likely to be abused. We've known of some examples for years and there must always have been more cases than were identified at the time. We know that most abuse never gets reported and children don't generally tell anyone. Clearly there needs to be a robust police investigation into the allegations that have been made, (not another 10-year Inquiry). But just as worrying is any sense of complacency that it couldn't still be happening. Of course it is. DBS checks only identify those who have already been caught and most abusers aren't. It's a point I constantly make in my training for schools. Proper systems of protection require a proactive 'culture of vigilance' not just a form filled in and a crossing of your fingers. I'm still not sure all schools have got this. Have you anticipated the potential risks? Do you have a written staff Code of Conduct? What does it say and do you enforce it and refer on any concerns outside the school? Have all your staff been trained in what to look out for and what to do if they have any evidence of improper behaviour by a colleague? Nothing less will do. 28.11.16
Two big stories in the news today. The Times is reporting that Justine Greening is to back down on the term-time holiday issue. It looks like she knows the DfE will not be able to overturn the High Court ruling that a few isolated days' unauthorised absence is not enough to prove an offence of 'irregular' attendance. She could opt for a different system of recovering unpaid Penalty Notices but it looks as if the Government is accepting that a degree of flexibility, exercised at headteachers' discretion, is a better way forward. I couldn't agree more. This issue has taken far too high a priority in recent years and there are far more important things to be getting on with.
LIke another report from Ofsted about the way schools and LAs are placing excluded and vulnerable children in poor quality 'alternative provision' and the virtual non-regulation of what parents have to provide 'otherwise than at school'. There is nothing new here; some of us have been banging on about it for years. But at last it looks as if someone is actually taking some notice. Over to you DfE to look at the law and make sure that LAs have the resources and powers that they need to do the job. 08.11.16
The utter shambles of the historic Child Abuse Inquiry has now been revealed for all to see. I don't know anyone who actually works in this field who has ever believed this Inquiry would be helpful. A massive unworkable agenda; a timescale of up to 10 years with the promise only of an interim Report 'by 2020'; 4 Chairs already and huge payments to lawyers along the way. Now we know that the principal lawyer was allowed to resign while suspended and is still being paid to 'work from home'.
None of this does anything to deal with our society's mixed attitudes to the sexual abuse of children and young people. Neither does it improve services on the ground or provide proper support for those who are recovering from past abuse. All the signs are that there are still some key lessons to be learned but we could do this from what we already know. Constant navel-gazing about the past is not the way to get on with it. In a climate of unprecedented cuts to public services, such an extravagant white elephant is far from the priority. This Inquiry is meant to expose abuse by those in public office. It seems merely to be compounding it. No wonder some believe the whole thing is just a smokescreen, not a searchlight. Updated 28.10.16
The media have been reporting that after issuing over 3000 Penalty Notices last year, Derbyshire County Council has now set an 'interim' threshold of overall attendance; (though only unauthorised absences can be used as part of the evidence of an offence). If the child's attendance is over that level, the parent should just be given a written warning. This approach is not actually new at all. Some LAs have always had such a requirement in order to avoid fines being issued in every case of unauthorised leave, however brief or untypical. In the light of the Isle of Wight case it seems that those who took to the new approach with such enthusiasm are now having to reign in their expectations and recognise that such action is not always appropriate. It is also important to be clear that if the 'exceptional' circumstances context does apply, heads should still be willing to consider granting a limited level of leave. A 'zero tolerance' of all requests in all circumstances was never required. Perhaps those who have gone somewhat over the top on this issue might now accept the need for a little more restraint and common sense. After all, we are only talking about 1 in 14 of all absences so what's happening about all the rest? 22.09.16
I try not to take political sides in these thoughts, but I wonder if England really needs more grammar schools. Clever children already do extremely well in all-ability schools, many of them in socially-deprived areas, as Sir Michael Wilshaw has said this morning on R4. My worry is for those children who will not pass the test to any new grammars. What will our system offer them and what will be the effect on the schools they go to (or stay away from) instead? Our society does not seem to value people with practical skills as highly as those with academic knowledge, even though we urgently need more of them. Not every child wants or needs to go to University. We need other kinds of qualifications too. Social mobility comes from your chance of getting a good well-paid job, not just from passing difficult exams.
The most academically able should of course have access to such opportunites if they want them, whatever their background. But what about those who have abilities of other kinds? Will they also get what they need to be successful in life? Or will they always be seen as second class because they didn't make it into the school that is judged to be 'better' just because it only admits the brightest children? And if we don't get this right for every child, what will be the effect on their attendance and motivation? 09.09.16
From September, all schools, including the independent sector, must tell the LA (where the child lives) about ALL off-registrations that occur outside the usual transition times, whatever the reason. Previously the duty only applied to specified circumstances. (There is a copy of the DfE Guidance for LAs on DOCUMENTS).Ofsted has recently named and shamed 3 local authorities for failing to track all those children who go missing from school rolls. It is a key safeguarding issue. But even with the upcoming changes, the laws aren't necessarily there to ensure that we can always know where everyone is. (We have a national database of all cars, for example, but not of all children). You don't have to tell the Council in advance that you're moving house or let them know where you've gone. Many parents would object to what they see as an intrusion into the privacy of family life, so schools may not always have the information. Putting more duties onto parents has always been strongly resisted.
At least LAs and schools now have to communicate with each other. But we've spent the last 20 years distancing schools from LA control; now they're expected still to know everything; to 'intervene' when required and criticised when they don't. So schools have to tell them what they are doing, ideally before they do it. Only schools can make proper use of the Lost Pupil Database when a child's whereabouts are unknown, (which many have never heard of). Informing the LA that a child has left the school makes obvious sense. But who will know if they don't do it, especially if the school is in a different LA from the child? And what happens after that is still something of a lottery. There is a danger it will remain so unless the duties are clear and LAs are adequately funded and empowered to carry them out. (Updated 17.08.16)
There is one aspect of the debate about how to respond to term-time holidays that appears to need some clarification. Many colleagues have picked up the Judges' remarks in the Isle of Wight appeal about 90% attendance being some kind of benchmark. I'm not sure this is what they actually said, but if so they are wrong, in the specific context of a threshold for legal action. The level of overall absence is irrelevant to whether or not an offence has been committed. There is no 'acceptable' level to avoid prosecution, but it is only UNAUTHORISED absences that form the evidence. The bigger picture which the Court said should be taken into account can only relate to the wider pattern of any other unauthorised absences. A child may have under 50% attendance and the parent has done nothing wrong, if the absences have all been authorised. Attendance below 90%, (or any other level), is not in itself an offence. This is vitally important. It should mean that we focus on those cases where there are repeated unexplained and unjustified absences, and maybe not worry quite so much about some of the others! 23.06.16
More lazy reporting on child protection on R4's 'File on 4'.Two cases in Norfolk that were badly handled apparently mean the whole system is failing. No-one mentioned that there are about 60,000 children with Child Protection Plans nationally; probably hundreds just in Norfolk, that don't go wrong. Of course the tragedies and failures are disappointing and we must learn from them. But there can be no guarantees. The tragic case of Ellie Butler shows that anyone can make mistakes - including Family Court judges. Should more have been done subsequently to address her absence from school? No-one seems to have raised the question of legal action as the parents weren't responding to offers of help and were avoiding meetings etc. These are the sorts of cases that should be the priority, but failing to ensure a child attends is not included in the definition of 'neglect' - an obvious weakness which practitioners cannot change.
Child protection is complex, difficult and challenging. Those involved don't always co-operate with agencies or listen to the advice they are given. The powers to intervene are much more limited than most people think. Demand outstrips supply, increasingly so. Professionals don't live with families; parents can be deceitful and criminal. To say the whole system is a failure based on this 'evidence' would mean that Ofsted is also failing because we still have some inadequate schools. Or that the whole BBC is failing because it still makes the occasional poorly-researched and superficial programme! Updated 22.06.16
The Isle of Wight Council has announced that it is to challenge the recent case (which they lost in the High Court) over a failed prosecution for a term-time holiday - a further appeal funded not by the Council but by the DfE. It is only right that the DfE should cover the costs. They created this mess by requiring LAs to use the Education Act s.444 if a parent chooses not to pay a Penalty Notice, based on the same evidence. A few isolated days of unauthorised absence was never previously enough to prove 'irregular' attendance as the law requires for a conviction. What is the point of such retrospective action if the child is already back in school just as they were before? Prosecution is meant to solve a current problem, not to settle an old score.
The DfE will have to find some other way to collect unpaid PN fines, if this more hardline approach is to continue. They clearly have their eyes on Child Benefit. But should parents be fined at all for such short absences? The regulations do not prohibit all holidays in all circumstances as some LAs maintain - so why not let heads use their discretion to allow a limited amount rather than setting up 'zero tolerance' systems which have punished perfectly reasonable parents? It really hasn't helped. We could eventually see hundreds of legal challenges. I have never thought it was worth it. We should be concentrating on those children missing substantial amounts of school without good reason and those with no school at all. My advice would be to take the foot off the accelerator now before we all plunge over the cliff! Updated 16.06.16
It's slightly ironic that updated DfE Guidance for schools 'Keeping Children Safe in Education' came out on the same day as the highly worrying Channel 4 documentary about the way social care services have been operating in Birmingham - the UK's largest local authority. And just a day after a report suggesting that 1 in 5 children under 5 is now being identified with concerns about their welfare. We all need to keep our nerve here. Not all referrals are an allegation of abuse, just recognising a need for multi-agency support. But social care is in crisis in many areas. The Guidance makes it clear that the priority is those at greatest risk. They must not be missed. Of course things sometimes go wrong. No system, and no social worker or teacher, is always perfect. But tens of thousands of children are protected every day and no-one notices. It often feels like you are damned if you raise a concern and damned if you don't. That can lead us to think it's best not to bother, not to see, not to listen. That could, literally, be fatal and every school still needs to be constantly vigilant. 'It could happen here', says the Guidance. Actually, we know it does. 27.05.16
The suggestion that varying the term dates locally will help the holiday problem may actually make things worse. Most parents work and their work patterns may still be out of their control. Their current leave arrangements may suddenly be in term-time. If you have children in more than one school their holiday dates might not overlap with each other. Teachers and other school staff may find that their own children aren't on holiday when they are. A wider range of peak times won't bring down prices, just extend the weeks in which they are applied. There is only one sensible solution to this issue: be a lttle more tolerant of short untypical absences and stop making headteachers feel they will be criticised if they exercise reasonable discretion. More and more fines, which the DfE seems to be promising, is certainly not the answer. Parents will still go anyway because most have no choice or the school's timetable just doesn't fit in with the rest of their life. That will only perpetuate the climate of conflict we have now and make home-school relationships even more difficult. 25.05.16
It should come as no surprise to the DfE that there are probably hundreds of illegal schools operating in England. Suddenly they're interested, because of the combating extremism agenda. 7 years ago the Badman Report pointed out that there is no proper regulation of what parents provide if they choose not to enrol their children in an official school. There never has been. They don't even have to tell the local authority that they exist and what they are doing (if there's anyone left to notice) - a point Sir Michael Wilshaw from Ofsted got wrong on the media today. And they can go on holiday whenever they like and no-one fines them! But no government has ever wanted to take this issue seriously. I have no problem with parents making other educational arrangements as long as they do it properly and provide something of value. But their child's welfare must still be protected. It is nonsense that they are just then left to do whatever they like in the name of 'education'. 16.05.16
So where are we now in the light of today's High Court ruling about term-time holidays? The Court hasn't said what 'irregular' attendance is, but we now know that a few days' absence isn't enough to prove it! It was always a mistake to make prosecution the consequence of an unpaid Penalty Notice. The DfE says they will now need to change the law. I hope this won't be to lower the offence threshold even further. A few days' holiday leave is really not such a big deal. Headteachers should be able to use their discretion over whether to authorise it, depending on the individual circumstances. Excessive holidays might then reasonably result in some system of fines, but we need a different way of recovering them if the parent chooses not to pay. Removing an amount from Child Benefit has been suggested; that would be very controversial, costly to administer and there would have to be some right of appeal. But it is surely right to keep prosecution for those parents repeatedly failing in their duty. That should be the priority for local authorities, not chasing the easy targets. There has to be a more modest and proportionate approach than we've seen in recent years. Read my discussion paper on HOME. What do you think? 13.05.16
One of the joys of working from home is that you get to listen to Radio 4 as a constant backdrop to life. Just been listening to a discussion in 'Start the Week' about education and how technology and the internet are opening up ever new possibilities, for adults and children. It's all about what you learn not about how and where you learn it. So the key question is not, 'How do we ensure that all children go to school' We should be asking 'How do we ensure that all children receive an education? Children have never had to go to school. Their parents have to make sure they are 'properly educated'. It really is about time we recognised the range of learning options that are now available and made sure that all of them, including schools, home education and the other newer alternatives, are properly regulated to deliver what EVERY child needs. That really would be worth enforcing. 09.05.16
The attendance case from the Isle of Wight is due to be resolved on Friday (13th) when the HIgh Court will publish its decison on whether just a few days' unauthorised absence meet the criteria in the Education Act 1996 for 'irregular' attendance at school. Whatever view you take on this issue, it will have implications; either the potential for a lot more appeals and changes to current policies, or a green light to prosecute more easily if parents choose not to pay a Penalty Notice, especially for an unauthorised holiday. I find both prospects rather daunting but let's hope at least for a clear ruling, not a fudge that leaves things ambiguous and no-one really knowing what the rules are. But, either way, it will still be true that a local authority CAN take legal action in certain circumstances, not that it must. Local decision-making by heads and LAs about what is right in all the circumstances will still be essential. 07.05.16
Yesterday I was told about a family with very poor attendance who are being treated to a free holiday by their Social Care department. Fair enough, troubled families still need quality time together. But the problem is, it's in term-time, presumably because of cost. The school now faces an impossible dilemma. Authorise it because it's been provided by a partner agency not just taken without permission, or leave it unauthorised when it will effectively undermine the evidence for a potential prosecution already in the pipeline by giving the parents a defence for that week. Either a totally unhelpful decision by our social work colleagues or more proof that a 'zero tolerance' policy just doesn't work in practice; perhaps both. If I were a parent in the same school who'd been fined already for doing the same for my family, I know what I'd think! 06.05.16.