Absent without leave?


New figures show a slight rise in school absence with local authorities issuing thousands more penalty notices. And while persistent absenteeism is down, vulnerable groups are still more likely to fall into this category. Pete Henshaw looks at the stats.


Students on free school meals (FSM) are almost three times more likely to be persistent absentees from school, new figures have revealed.

Persistent absenteeism is defined as those students who miss more than 15 per cent of the academic year.

The latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE), which relate to the 2012/13 school year, show that overall, across all schools, that 4.6 per cent of pupils are persistent absentees – down from 5.2 per cent in 2011/12.

However, persistent absentees now account for 22.4 per cent of all student absence, compared with 25.1 per cent in 2011/12.

As usual, the figures are based on attendance across the first five half-terms of the year, with the sixth half-term historically being excluded because activities such as work experience can skew the figures.

However, for the first time the government has also published figures for all six half-terms, although the persistent absentee rate remains at 4.6 per cent for both sets of statistics.

Worryingly, across all six half-terms, the figures show that the rate of persistent absenteeism among FSM students is much higher – at 10.6 per cent compared to 3.3 per cent for non-FSM children.

Furthermore, the persistent absentee rate for SEN statemented pupils was almost four times higher than for non-SEN students – 12.4 per cent compared with 3.4 per cent. It was also higher for pupils on School Action Plus (10.6 per cent) and School Action (7.5 per cent).

Overall, the persistent absentee figure across five half-terms for 2012/13 includes three per cent of primary pupils (down 0.1 per cent on 2011/12) and 6.4 per cent of secondary students, down one per cent from the previous year.

This equates to 300,895 students in total who are persistently absent – 106,845 primary pupils, 181,200 secondary and 12,850 from special schools.

Across six half-terms, the figure falls slightly to 295,345 persistent absentees (97,405 primary, 184,995 secondary, and 12,945 special).

The DfE regularly cites evidence that shows absence from school has a “significant negative effect on attainment”. Of pupils who miss between 10 and 20 per cent of school, only 39 per cent attain at least five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 73 per cent of pupils who miss less than five per cent of school.

The figures come after the government reduced the threshold by which absence is defined as persistent from 20 to 15 per cent in October 2011.

Ministers emphasise that if a child misses 15 per cent of their whole school career, this equates to 18 months of lost time in the classroom.

Overall absence

Looking at absence overall, the figures show that 49.3 million schools days were lost to both authorised and unauthorised absence in 2012/13.

Across the five half-terms, absence rates increased by 0.1 per cent in 2012/13 with 5.2 per cent of possible school sessions (half-days) being missed.

However, while absence in primary and special schools rose, secondary schools actually saw absence rates fall from 5.9 to 5.8 per cent of sessions missed.

Government statisticians have emphasised that absence rates in 2011/12 were “exceptionally low” because of low sickness rates that year, meaning that the overall rise in 2012/13 is simply a return to more usual levels of illness.

The majority of absences were authorised by the schools concerned, with unauthorised absences remaining at one per cent in 2012/13 – a figure which has changed little over the years.

Across the six half-terms, the overall absence figure is slightly higher, at 5.3 per cent of possible sessions missed, with illness accounting for 58.3 per cent of these.

Interestingly, across the first five half-terms, family holidays make up nine per cent of all absences, down from 10.1 per cent in the previous year.

However, across the six half-terms, family holidays make up 11.4 per cent of all absences, illustrating just how many parents choose to take their children out of school during the June and early July period.

In September 2013, the government changed the law to ban schools from granting a leave of absence during term-time, including for holidays, unless in “exceptional circumstances”. It means that next year’s absence figures are expected to show a notable reduction in this area.

Overall, across all six half-terms, 6.2 per cent of pupils recorded no absence whatsoever, with the most common absence rates being 0.5 to 5 days (36.1 per cent of pupils) and 5.5 to 10 days (25.7 per cent of pupils). Almost one in 10 pupils (9.5 per cent) was absent for more than 20.5 days.

The average total absence in special schools was just under 17 school days per pupil. This compares to just over eight school days in state-funded primary schools, and 10 school days in state-funded secondaries.

Parental fines

Figures also show that a record number of truancy fines were issued in 2012/13 with 52,370 penalty notices being sent out compared with 41,224 the previous year.

From September 2012, the government has also increased the fines for truancy from £50 to £60 and from £100 to £120 if not paid within 28 days. A total of 30,746 penalty notices were paid within the given timeframe, up from 24,269 the previous year.

The figures show that 11 local authorities issue more than 1,000 penalty notices including Leicester which sent out 2,728 and Kent which issued 3,994. Also on the list were Redbridge (1,714), Luton (1,592), Lancashire (1,377), East Riding (1,294), and Manchester (1,234).

Meanwhile Buckinghamshire, Sunderland, Southwark, Sefton, Warrington, Thurrock, Rotherham, Richmond, and the City of London all issued no penalty notices.

A total of 27,977 of the penalty notices were paid within the 28 day period, netting local authorities £1,678,630, while a further 2,769 were paid within the 42-day limit, bringing in another £332,280.

It means that 9,949 went unpaid, while 8,317 were withdrawn for reasons including mistakes or a local authority deciding against taking legal proceedings to recover the money. 

Prosecutions were brought against 7,806 people because of non-payment with a total of 282 parenting orders being made as a result.

Children’s charity 4Children warned this week against relying too much on the blunt use of fines. Chief executive Anne Longfield said: “New figures showing a drop in truancy levels in schools are encouraging and reflects much of the positive work that is being carried out by Troubled Families programme teams, children’s centres and all those who work hard to support struggling families. It is important that efforts to improve truancy levels are focused firmly on working in a holistic way with the entire family to support children back into school. Heavy handed fines should be used very sparingly.”

Education secretary Michael Gove said: “There is no excuse for skipping school. We have taken action to reduce absence by increasing fines and encouraging schools to address the problem earlier. 

“The figures show we are making progress, with 130,000 fewer pupils regularly missing school under this government.

“Alongside our measures to give teachers powers to search pupils and impose same-day detentions, this demonstrates our determination to get tough on bad behaviour.”

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