Trends in term-time absence


The rules over term-time absence changed last year. Amy Cook looks at how school leaders who use The Key have reacted.

In September 2013, the government changed the regulations on term-time leave of absence for school pupils.

Headteachers could previously grant up to 10 days’ leave in “special circumstances”. However, now they may only grant leave in “exceptional circumstances”.

Schools and local authorities can issue penalty notices to parents who break the rules, charging fines of £60 per-pupil, per-parent. 

If parents refuse to pay, the school or local authority can take the case to court, which may result in a fine of up to £2,500 or a three-month jail term.

Impact of the new rules

Issues relating to term-time leave have certainly been on the minds of users of The Key.

An article on how schools should respond to term-time requests for holiday leave was the seventh most popular (out of more than 3,000) between October and March. It ranked higher than articles on the upcoming reforms to SEN provision and the new curriculum.

Furthermore, the number of members looking for guidance on term-time absence in the autumn term, when the new regulations took effect, almost doubled in comparison to the summer term. 

While secondary school leaders have taken a keener interest in the topic since the regulations came in, primary school leaders seem to be particularly concerned: our members in secondary settings are 28 per cent less likely to read about term-time absence than their primary colleagues.

What might this difference signify? It’s possible that parents think secondary education is more important, and therefore insist their children remain in school, particularly those approaching exams.

For this reason, secondary school leaders might face less resistance to the new regulations than their colleagues in primary settings.

Another interpretation could be that secondary schools have typically had a firmer approach to term-time leave, irrespective of parental demand, and consequently need less assistance now.

Impact of FSM?

One purpose of the 2013 amendments was to discourage family holidays during term-time, and the education secretary, Michael Gove, has criticised travel companies which increase their prices during school holidays.

Are school leaders in less prosperous areas, where families might feel the pinch of higher holiday prices more, seeking more guidance on implementing the new rules than their counterparts in more affluent areas?

For autumn 2013, we compared our data on how likely members were to look at an article about term-time leave, with the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) in their schools. The results were intriguing.

Leaders in schools with above-average levels of FSM were actually the least interested in articles on term-time absence. Members in schools with the lowest proportion of pupils receiving FSM were 1.5 times more engaged with this topic.

There are some possible explanations. In schools with average or lower-than-average levels of FSM, parents may have higher lifestyle aspirations, with holidays abroad being more of an expectation. 

Our members in these schools might face more opposition to their less accommodating approach to term-time leave. Consequently, they may need more support with communicating the new policy and convincing parents of its importance. A further possibility is that families in more deprived areas cannot afford holidays even in the off-peak season.

However, the overall absence rate for this demographic is above the national average: children claiming FSM missed 7.6 per cent of possible school sessions in 2012/13, compared to 4.7 per cent for non-FSM pupils. Are schools with higher proportions of FSM already better versed in the problem of unauthorised absence, and therefore less in need of guidance?

Other factors

The Key’s members in schools with lower proportions of children speaking English as an additional language were more likely to seek out our articles on term-time absence than their colleagues in more diverse settings.

And members’ interest levels across the country are far from uniform. Proportionally, school leaders in the South West showed double the level of concern of those in the capital (between October and March). 

In fact, articles on term-time absence have been of less interest to our London-based members than to school leaders in all other regions. 

What is the up-shot? 

Our data shows that term-time absence is high on the agenda for schools, and the Department for Education’s statistics show an increase in the number of penalty notices issued to parents for unauthorised absences (see below for more details).

In a survey conducted by The Key last November, almost 70 per cent of respondents in secondary schools said they did not expect the change in regulations to reduce requests for term-time absence, and 27 per cent had already fined a parent for arranging a term-time holiday since September 2013. Schools are clearly aware of the regulations and their powers to enforce them. 

However, one headteacher in the North East told us that the policy “will only encourage parents to lie about the reasons for their child’s absence”, fearing that absence rates for holidays may appear to decrease, but alongside a rise in absence for other reasons. 

However, the official statistics are encouraging. The latest absence data shows that the percentage of school sessions missed for family holidays in the autumn term dropped from 0.5 per cent in 2012, to 0.4 per cent in 2013. Absence due to illness also decreased over the same period.

The real indicator will be the absence data for the spring and summer terms, when families are usually more likely to escape for some cheaper summer sun.

We’ll have to wait to see what the next batch of government statistics show.

The latest absence statistics

Students on free school meals (FSM) are almost three times more likely to be persistent absentees from school, the latest government absence figures reveal.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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. A total of 30,746 penalty notices were paid within the given timeframe, up from 24,269 the previous year. Prosecutions were brought against 7,806 people because of non-payment with a total of 282 parenting orders being made as a result.

The DfE 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.

  • Amy Cook is a researcher at The Key, a question-answering service that supports school leaders by providing practical, researched answers to their questions.

Further information
You can access the DfE pupil absence figures at



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