WHITTER                       Education welfare news and views Feedback always welcome

Latest figures about the UK population show that 9.4 million people who live here were not born here. Many of them have, or are, children. This is the reality of our contemporary society. (The numbers have been boosted by a pre-Brexit bulge).  This includes over 400,000 from Romania and over 1 million from Poland as well as many others from more traditional Commonwealth countries. For many of these families, 'home' is somewhere else - and they naturally want to maintain their connections there, and  not necessarily only at times that fit in with our school holidays.

 

It is simply not possible for everyone's life to fit entirely around school. Most do so for nearly all the time, but a little bit of flexibility has to be accepted as reasonable.  These trips are not just 'holidays' but many are being treated as if they were. The removal of 'extended leave' really hasn't helped. Surely heads should be given the discretion to  make a judgement about granting permission in the light of all the facts, without fearing censure based solely on the data? It's good that these children are in school, isnt it? But admitting them seems to penalise everyone.

 

A related issue is that not everyone now lives here all the year round. Seasonal workers, students and others with children are the equivalent of the C19th itinerant workers who were given some leeway at the time; (200 sessions a year is still sufficient). I've regularly come across schools marking children absent for months when they're not in  the country. I really cannot see the point in that. We need a much more flexible leave and re-admission system to help those parents who only need a school when they're here. Indeed we probably need a whole new approach to how we make sure that ALL children are properly educated and to meet the needs of a society that has changed radically in 150 years! 24.05.18

 

There has been a subtle change to s.444(2A) of the Education Act 1996 to make it clear that, IF their claim is disputed by the school, the onus is now on the parent in any legal proceedings to prove that their child was genuinely ill before that can be accepted as a defence. This has clarified that the sickness clause was only ever meant to be used when the child was actually ill. But now the parent has to prove they were, IF the school claims that they were not, the absences have been left unauthorised and the matter later comes to court. (Authorised absences are not an offence as the child is then absent 'with leave' which is still an automatic defence).

 

This change does not mean that the parent has to prove it every time before any absence can be authorised on grounds of illness. It should not become a matter of routine policy in all cases. Most of the time the parent's judgement that the child was not fit for school should be taken as sufficient. Only if the school has reasonable grounds to believe that the child was not actually ill (or that the illness was not serious enough to justify the absence) should the absences be left unauthorised. Parents must then be told of the school's decision and the reason, (I would advise in writing), in each case. These sessions can then be cited in Penalty Notices or prosecutions and it will be up to the parent to prove later that the school is in the wrong, not the other way round as before. 08.05.18

 

I have never understood why so many schools have to be used as polling stations, or why they necessarily have to close when they are.  It's very inconvenient for working parents and we know that broken weeks always have lower attendance on the other days. Schools have only just come back from the Easter break and are closed again next Monday. And we wonder why some parents will think this is a good time to take a holiday! Some schools will use the Friday for training so at least that  makes an extra long weekend, but not all will do that so that odd day is bound to be seen as optional. Why do we always have elections on a school day anyway? 01.05.18

 

Being late for school cropped up again at yesterday's FORUM Attendance Matters Conference in Birmingham. If you're a little bit late (within the registration period which the school defines) then you're present (L) and, legally speaking, the parent has done nothing wrong. If arrival is after the registration period has closed, then you're unauthorised absent (U) and the parent has committed an offence. It's the same as not coming at all. There is no provision for authorised absence for lateness.

 

So what do you do if the child arrives after the registration period but with an entirely truthful, reasonable or even unavoidable explanation? The official school bus broke down on the way.  There was a train strike or a massive traffic jam. They have arrived late after a genuine early medical appointment; (M is only to be used if they miss the whole session). They have struggled in through the snow, etc. etc. The DfE Guidance is entirely silent on what to do. 'Thanks for coming in' - so we've marked it as an offence! If they missed the day entirely it would probably have been authorised. 

 

U is clearly unreasonable so L must be the mark to use even if the closing time has passed. There is only one mark available to cover the whole 3 or 4 hours. Which one most accurately reflects what actually happened? None of the other marks would show the child arrived or keep them on track for a 100% attendance award as they and their parents surely deserve. Sometimes rules just have to be broken. 23.03.18

 

£24 million in revenue for hard-pressed LAs and over 400,000 fines later, where are we going with term-time holidays? Most parents haven't changed their behaviour much, if at all. Most is now marked unauthorised. But parents are still going. Of course they are! I seem to be the only education welfare professional in the country who thinks it's just not worth it! Why?

 

Penalty Notices are fundamentally unfair because it all depends on where you live. It's a lottery. A holiday tax that only some have to pay and with no right of appeal. The reason for the leave might not be 'exceptional' but that doesn't cover every situation that might be reasonable in all the circumstances. Parents have to risk getting a criminal conviction if they want to contest the decision in the only way they can by not paying. That simply isn't right.

 

PNs just collect money. They don't address the issues where children are genuinely absent when they shouldn't be. It's parents who repeatedly condone unauthorised absences for whom the law was intended, not those with children on 97%.

 

Many sessions are lost to exclusions when no other provision is made, or to over-authorisation, unmet special  needs, part-time timetables and a host of other absences initiated by schools  and LAs. Many of these are equally illegal and may drag on for weeks or months. If every session counts, every session counts! 

 

Some 'holidays' are actually parents  maintaining important family links with their culture overseas. Eastern European workers and students may have their children with them. Not every parent was born here. That's  the kind of society we now are and English school terms aren't necessarily the only factor to be considered. 

 

Not every family can possibly go on holiday at once. If they had to, the costs then would be even higher. Most parents work. Not everyone can take their leave at the same time if we still want there to be public services, shops, transport, hospitals (and hotels, theme parks etc.) in July and August. 

 

And it's only about 0.5% of all sessions in total. It was 0.6% when this all started. If this 'crackdown' was intended to stop term-term holidays it clearly hasn't worked. It's actually made things worse as parents are now reluctant to tell us the truth, even when it's reasonable, for fear of being punished. Schools and parents need to work together not be in constant conflict. 15.03.18 

 

 

For months now Ofsted has been raising concerns about children attending poor quality unofficial 'schools', either as well as conventional schools or instead of them. Why has so little been done? We know that they are often squalid and dangerous places with no proper regulation of their staff.  Most seem to have a basis in what can only be described as religious indoctrination, Islamic, Jewish or Christian, not in education. Local government and Ofsted do not have the powers they need to even know about them, and although some have been closed, many have not. All we are promised is action 'in due course', probably not in this session of Parliament.

 

One reason for the delay is that representations have been made by the Church of England and other churches that regulation would be an unwelcome burden on their children's work. I can speak from some experience here and I am sure that your average Sunday School has absolutely no reason to fear any new system, from which they would largely be exempt because they meet only for a short time. But there are suggestions that some Christian groups are engaging in activities that seriously undermine British values of tolerance and understanding of diversity. If children are being told by adults at their church, (or their mosque or synagogue) that adherents of other religions, or humanists, gays and atheists, are 'of the devil' or the  'antiChrist', or that women must be subservient to men, that is religious extremism, not just one valid opinion among many. 04.03.18

 

Advice on marking registers when it snows:

 

If the whole or part of the school is closed (or it closes at lunchtime) the relevant sessions are discounted from the data for everyone involved. If closing at lunchtime, you could mark the p.m. registers before sending the children home if you prefer. But discounted sessions are not classed as absences and will not affect the school's or child's percentage.

 

If the school is open for that pupil, but the headteacher agrees that it was reasonable for them not to come in, (distance; safety; no transport etc.) the Y code should be used. This discounts the session for THAT child only. If the head feels the child could have come in but didn't (i.e. lives nearby) you have to decide whether or not to authorise the absence (C) or mark it unauthorised (O). Y should not be used for these children.

 

If the school is open and children arrive after the normal time for close of registration because of disrupted journeys, I would argue that, as with a genuine early medical appointment first, L is still appropriate, not U. Marking U tells the parent they may as well not have bothered and they have committed an offence even though their child has arrived, which in my opinion, sends all the wrong signals. Some attendance is always better than none at all.  26.02.18

 

If a report in yesterday's Daily Telegraph is correct, another local authority is in danger of making a fool of itself. Westminster Council has served a School Attendance Order on the parents of  a 12 year-old girl who has always been home educated and has recently played Matilda in the West End. It seems they have previously issued the necessary performance licence, (which they should not have done if they were not satisfied that she was being properly educated). The Council say they were not aware of her till then: because there is no requirement on home-educating parents to notify the LA that they exist. Education 'otherwise' doesn't need to mimic what is provided in a school even though the parents say they have also supplied examples of her work. But clearly she is learning useful skills and gaining valuable experience for her likely adult life by performing, let alone the additional educational activities her parents do with her.

 

Children do not have be enrolled in a school for parents to meet their legal duty. That has been a fundamental principle of our system for 150 years. If the LA persists in trying to enforce the Order, they will have to prove that she is not being properly educated. (The parents do not have to prove that she is). Given the broad definitions in law and in DfE Guidance, I do not see how they can possibly do that. As I discussed below (30.01.18), there are many weaknesses in the current law and many children about whom we should all be concerned - but this is surely not one of them?  15.02.18

 

How far should schools go in finding out where a child is when they don't turn up as usual? The case of the 2 children left alone at home all day when their father had died suddenly while their mother was away, raises some important questions. Another even more tragic case was the child who starved to death after no-one could get any answer from his mother because she had died first. Staff tried to visit more than once. When I was at school they probably wouldn't have done anything at all. The climate is certainly different now and we would reasonably  be expected to try all the numbers on the contact list if there's no answer to the first one - if, that is, parents have given the school more than one number and then kept them up to date with any changes. Many don't.

 

It is a difficult thing for schools to get right. We can't assume that a non-arrival without notice necessarily means some major crisis.  Most of the time I suspect parents just forget, or just don't think to do it. Some don't contact us if their child will be away because they assume they will get into trouble, even if the reason is a legitimate one, or because they're under compulsory age. And it can be very time-consuming only to find out there is nothing amiss. But making every reasonable effort to contact a parent (or grandparent) is certainly best practice. Otherwise a child who travels independently might not arrive and their parent wouldn't know for 6 or 7 hours. The more we can get parents to co-operate in letting us know what is happening, the better the outcomes will be. Then if we don't hear from them, the alarm bells might reasonably start ringing.  31.01.18

 

A man knocked on my front door this morning from one of those religious organisations that sees it as their mission to disturb people trying to get some work done at home. He had a boy with him, about 12 years old. Not a 'truant' but 'home educated'. He is spending today standing about in the cold while his father tries to convince people like me that we need his particular brand of faith. 

 

Adults are of course free to believe whatever they wish. Most home-educating parents act responsibly. But this is the reality of 'education otherwise' for some; (we have no idea how many as there is no system of compulsory registration). No standards; no curriculum; no effective monitoring. The Government (in England anyway) seems not to want to tighten the law but is content just to issue new Guidance in due course. In effect this continues to allow some parents to treat children as an extension of themselves, with no independent right to receive a proper balanced and broad education if their parents don't want them to, even if they have significant special needs. Virtually anything a parent provides will meet the current test, if anyone  ever asks. But if you enrol your child in a school you can get a criminal record for spending 4 days on holiday together at the only time you can afford it! 30.01.18

 

There's a piece into today's TIMES about doctors appealing to schools not to expect parents to provide medical 'evidence' for routine short absences. The appointments and time involved are clogging up surgeries that are under enough pressure to see those patients who actually need them. GPs and other surgery staff are under no obligation to do such work and it's a waste of their precious time. This is all an unnecessary over-reaction by some schools and LAs (thankfully not all) who have become overly-concerned about very small amounts of absence or lateness.

 

DfE guidance is clear. Don't ask for medical 'proof' unless there are genuine reasons to believe that the parent is being untruthful, not as a part of routine authorisation procedures. Most chidlren's illnesses, even when it's enough to be off school for a day or two, will not require a doctor, (just like adults who can have a week self-certified). It can all get just a bit too heavy-handed.  I've just seen a letter issuing a legal warning about a child's attendance at 96.3% with 9 minutes lost in a term to lateness. Children get ill. It's normal. Not everything in life can always revolve around school all the time. Professionals need to use their common sense and discretion. Or we end up like the school that  banned some children from using new play equipment because their parents hadn't paid a 'voluntary contribution' towards it, and then had to issue an embarassing apology. Please let's keep a sense of proportion and think before we act. 13.01.18

 

The new head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman seems to have noticed at last that many children, especially some of the most vulnerable, 'disappear' from the eventual published performance tables. Our whole focus on raising attendance is meant to ensure that EVERY child receives the education to which they are entitled. That's why parents can be held to account and (allegedly) the reason why taking your child out of school, even for a brief holiday, has become the subject of so much criticism and led to hundreds of thousands of fines.

 

I might even support current the legal response in trivial cases, (well, maybe not!) if we didn't also know, and have always known, that many other children, mostly those who really are at genuine risk of missing out, have been been eased out of mainstream schools by formal and illegal exclusions, pressure on parents to home educate, part-time provision, extended 'study leave', unmet special needs and simple slight of hand. Once you start to evaluate the quality of a school almost entirely by crude statistical data, it is inevitable that leaders will seek to ensure that they meet all the necessary targets. Education becomes not about all children; only about those who will bring you the credit you feel you deserve.

 

I don't blame schools for this - they've only  been doing what they've been asked to do.  So Ofsted, if you want things to change, lead the way in praising those schools that put children first, not the figures. Stop making judgements about a school before you've even been there, based only on what the data says. Dig beneath the surface; ask the awkward questions; talk to those who don't just tell you what you want to hear. Give more credit to those schools battling against unbelievable odds that many 'outstanding' schools never have to face. Schools are not supermarkets or football teams. 'League table' positions should be regarded with enormous suspicion. I know. I support Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion!! 12.12.17

  

More shoddy reporting yesterday, this time from the BBC News website, making all kinds of claims about 'truancy' without making it clear which figures they are using. It would be difficult as there is no such measure. The true truant, who comes into school and then absconds, will be marked present! I assume they mean ''unauthorised absence' but that's about parents not childen. A parent can't truant. A 5 year-old who is kept off by their parent is not a truant.  Sometimes they seem to be talking about 'persistent absence' or 'overall absence' both of which include children with a life-threatening illness and absences the school has authorised. Makes the whole article and the conclusions it draws utterly meaningless. 08.12.17

 

The East Sussex 'Get a Grip' campaign is back in the news again after the Council voted to continue using it, despite objections from over 11,000 parents about its patronising and confrontational tone. They are generally right in their criticism in my opinion, but my main objection is that the leaflet, or at least the version of it on the LA website, is simply factually wrong.

 

It says the Penalty fine is £120. It's actually £60 if paid within 3 weeks; it's only £120 after that. It says that independent medical proof is required for every sickness absence. That contradicts the DfE Guidance to schools. Parents normally decide. Other evidence should only be required if there is genuine doubt over whether they are being truthful. It says there are no good reasons for missing school other than a religious festival and 'serious' illness. Obviously not true. Bereavement? Family breakdowns and disruption? Homelessness? And heads should always be prepared to consider allowing leave on compassionate and pastoral grounds; even for a holiday if the circumstances are 'exceptional'. Children have lives outside school that sometimes get in the way. Just telling parents to get them to bed earlier or take away their phones is making a massive assumption.  

 

This looks like a crude attempt to put pressure on parents without actually doing any proper work to understand the various reasons for absences and what can be done about them, (most of which are authorised anyway).  If they have such an issue with persistent absence, as they claim, (though they may be including everyone under 90% so far, not just those below 90% over the whole school year which is the actual measure), this campaign will only make things worse and create even more barriers to effective home-school relationships. Parents won't talk to us if they think they will always be criticised. 'Get a grip'? Someone should! 06.12.17  

 

It looks as though the DfE (in England) is going to consult on some revised Guidance on Elective Home Education. (Wales is set to get a proper register). This falls way short of the wishes of those who wanted to see a tightening of the law and a more thorough registration and inspection process where parents choose not to send their child to a school. I suspect the Guidance will mostly be about illegal schools, where there are concerns about both safeguarding and links to extremism, not about what most parents provide themselves.

 

I have absolutely no problem with parents taking responsibility for providing their own children's education. School is not the only way to learn and not every child necessarily benefits from such an increasingly rigid and academic curriculum. I do have a problem with parents whose children are not safe and who are trying to escape detection; or those whose idea of 'education' is making their children read the Bible all day, do household chores, look after a baby or work illegally in their parents' business. The problem is we have no way of telling the difference at present.

 

We need the genuine home education lobby to throw its weight behind a proper system of regulation, not see it as as threat. If they are doing it effectively (and it doesn't have to look anything like a school) they have no reason to fear a system that at least ensures we know that they and their children exist. Leaving it up to every parent to make their own decision, with virtually no external monitoring, is just not enough to protect the rights of every child. We have a database of every car, but not of every child. Perhaps we at least need a shift in our priorities. 29.11.17 

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I am committed to a welfare-based strategic approach to managing attendance and absence. I may not always tell you exactly what you think you want to hear or repeat what you always thought was true. But I will offer you an informed and independent voice that gives you real practical help in carrying out your statutory duties and seeks to promote more effective solutions for those children and young people who most need them. I don't do twitter but I do 'whitter' about education welfare issues. Currently: Our C21st population needs a C21st approach.

 

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