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I've recently written a guide for parents of children with special needs about how attendance registers in schools should be marked. It seems that they are confused by the 24 different marks that can be used! And what they are told by headteachers and local authority staff might not always be true. 


Not everything is defined in legislation and Guidance. There is room for some discretion. Rigid rules will sometimes not be in the best interests of children, parents or schools. But if something IS defined in Regulations or the underpinning Act there is NO discretion. The law is there for a reason.


So here's a quiz. Which of the following things are defined in law and which are open to interpretation or require some local flexibility?


  1. the definition of compulsory 'school' age
  2. the right of parents to home educate and what schools/LAs must do
  3. what registers must be kept and when they must be taken
  4. which students are covered by the concept of unauthorised absence and which are not
  5. when children can be removed from the Admission Register
  6. when marks in registers can be changed
  7. the definition of a 'parent'
  8. which absences are evidence of an offence by parents 
  9. what must happen about an excluded child's continuing education
  10. the meaning and scope of 'persistent absence'


The answer, of course, is that ALL of these are covered by statutory requirements which must be followed. You cannot hope to do it all right unless you are aware of the relevant Regulation. Other things, like lateness, what to do when children are sick and study leave are addressed in DfE Guidance, but that is non-statutory. That's not to say it isn't helpful and I would only occasionally suggest a different interpretion. But the intention is clearly to create as level a playing field as possible across all 24,000 schools. Surely parents, and their children are entitled to that, not be expected to fit in with a 'rule' that someone has just made up? 21.10.18


Drew Povey of 'Educating Greater Manchester' fame has gone very public about the investigation into him, and his subsequent suspension and resignation, with an (extremely sympathetic) article in the TIMES magazine (13.10.18). It must then be OK for the rest of us to comment. I'm sure he is not the only head under scrutiny. Ofsted has identified 300 schools where excessive numbers of pupils have mysteriously disappeared during Key Stage 4. Perhaps there is, as he claims, a local agenda here and personality issues are behind all this. I don't know.

Neither do I know exactly what he is supposed to have done. But I do know that failing to keep your registers in accordance with the Regulations (which few heads have ever read) is not just a minor adminstrative technicality as Mr Povey suggests. It is illegal. As illegal as a parent failing to ensure their child attends. The law is there for a reason - to protect the educational entitlement of every child. He has a point about the weaknesses in much of our education system. I agree with many of the comments he makes about the overly-academic and inflexible curriculum. But manipulating the data, removing children from roll or using the wrong marks in your registers does not therefore become acceptable.

There are a number of underlying factors that lead to situations like these:

  • Turning children's outcomes into performance indicators for their teachers and schools inevitably encourages the presentation of the figures in the best possible format, not necessarily the most accurate.

  • The DfE and the Supreme Court in the Jon Platt case have given the impression that obeying school rules is what matters most. But schools cannot just make up their own rules, especially in registration and off-registration. There is a balance to be struck involving the rights of all parties, not least the individual child.

  • Governance and accountability are extremely weak in many schools. The Governors' Handbook says that they should hold heads to account and ensure that the Registration Regulations are being complied with. But governors haven't read them either!

  • The last few years have seen a massive reduction in resources available to LAs and a distancing of their involvement in the running of schools, even though most parents still think they are in charge of everything. This inevitably leads to things going unchallenged which would have been picked up in the past.

  • The whole educational climate has become one of suspicion and mistrust between schools and parents - fuelled by the DfE's obsession with occasional absences for family holidays (which are still at more or less the same level as they were 5 years ago; 0.5% of all sessions despite over 400,000 fines). This undermines the relationship of partnership and mutual respect that should be at the heart of what we do.

This issue is not only about one headteacher among many who may have been found out. It's about the way so many of those dealing with attendance and registration have low status, low support and low training while those who are ultimately responsible think it doesn't really matter much. Just an administrative chore affecting a few children. That's what has to change. 17.10.18

I usually start my training days with a quick bit of history. Why do we have a law that says all children must go to school? Actually, we don't. Ever since the 1870 Education Act parents have been perfectly free to choose other ways to educate their children. They still don't have to send them to a school at all if they don't want to. At the time that was a concession to the upper classes who wanted to make their own arrangements and leave the state out of it.

The state turned its attention to the poor; to those who didn't have the skills, knowledge and financial resources to do it themselves. Their children should be at school, whether they liked it or not, (which many didn't), if then only to age 12 or 13. And their parents could be fined if they didn't make sure they went 'regularly' - which, incidentally, since the Supreme Court ruling on the Platt case, now means EVERY session the school is open, unless the headteacher has authorised the absence. 99% attendance is not necessarily good enough.

So is our approach still the same now as it was then? Pretty much, even though our society's social, ethnic and cultural mix has changed radically. The compulsory age has gone up to 16+, but the legal duty (and the right to choose how their child is educated) still lies entirely with parents. There is no offence of 'truancy' and children are not responsible for their own attendance. Getting on for half a million fines have been issued in the last 5 years, mostly for very short periods of absence, holidays etc. It's become a nice little earner for many local authorities. Other cases of more chronic absence might result in more serious penalties, even a short spell in prison, though that may require some complex casework first which many LAs no longer have the time to do. Some of those children with the worst attendance are undoubtedly being overlooked or simply removed from the system illegally.

Does this punitive approach work? The level of holiday absence has barely changed. Parents who are seriously disengaged rarely change their values under the threat, or even the reality of a court summons. When I used to do that work I often used to feel it was the parents' lack of education which was the reason we were there, not the child's.

We have added in some other reasons for doing attendance work over the years. It's become a performance indicator for schools - hence the obsession with data which seems to lead some school leaders at least to bend or even break the law. It reinforces the authority of the headteacher which seemed to be the Supreme Court's primary concern. At the extremes there are links between poor attendance and poor attainment, but not in every case. And, of course, monitoring attendance is part of our safeguarding duty; if children are not in school, where are they?

Which brings us to the key answer to my opening question. Why do we do all this? It's about the children stupid! Is it? If I were devising a system that put ALL children at the centre in order to ensure they each receive an education that meets their varying needs so they will live successful adult lives, I certainly wouldn't start from here, or in 1870. If the product doesn't sell, it's not the customers who should be blamed. 03.10.18

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Attendance and absence have to be managed, like any other aspect of school life. Everyone is involved. I am committed to promoting a welfare-based and strategic approach, not only a focus on improving the figures. I will offer you an informed and independent voice that gives you real practical help in carrying out your statutory duties and which seeks to promote more effective solutions for those children and young people who most need them. I also WHITTER on current education welfare issues.


This is likely to be my last year of professional work after over 30 years in education welfare. But there is more to life than work so you'll also find a page about humanist spirituality where I write about my other main interest. Can Christianity and its central figure mean anything to those who are not convinced that conventional religions take us where we need to go as modern, thoughtful, rational human beings? It's life before death that matters, so how do we decide how to live it? I do not believe in  any divine 'God' but I do try to follow the 'Way of Jesus'. Many other ways are available. Can we at least still walk the same road together even if we don't all  believe the same things?


Feedback and comment are always very welcome.


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