- It is the responsibility of the headteacher to determine which absences are unacceptable.
- Term-time absence can only be authorised if circumstances are 'exceptional'.
- Lateness coding should be considered carefully to ensure that only deliberate parental action is penalised.
Children are no longer simply 'present' or 'absent', as was the case before attendance became a focus for educators and inspec-tors. Previously, every absence was a potential offence by the parent and it was up to them to prove to a magistrate, if required to do so, that the reason came within the defence clauses defined in the Education Act 1944: illness and other unavoidable causes, etc. I used to go into schools and wade through piles of paper registers, sometimes not kept very accurately or neatly, and where you had to do all the maths yourself, in order to try and spot those children who were a problem. It was often pretty random and haphazard.
Authorised and unauthorised
With the introduction of the 'authorised' and 'unauthorised' system from the early 1990s, and the collation of the data by computer, life became both easier and more complex. The wide range of specific codes has enabled us to do a far more detailed analysis, but it's now up to the headteacher (not the parent or local authority) to determine which absences are unacceptable.
Authorising absences means the parent has done nothing wrong. Some schools initially saw it as their primary goal to have as little unauthorised absence as possible, ideally none at all. Then that became a bad thing; over-authorisation is now considered bad practice. So, in a sense, all absences are back in the frame, now that both overall and persistent absence are the key measures. However, unauthorised absences are still what really matter if we want to hold parents legally to account.
All of the above has given headteachers, and those who carry out their instructions, something of a headache. It's down to you to decide how to classify every session – no-one else can do it for you. Despite the increasing freedom given to schools, not all heads have been keen to take this job on, preferring to rely on 'my hands are tied' or 'the LA has told me what I must do', neither of which are strictly true. It's a matter of individual school policy and requires the exercise of some discretion.
Term-time holidays and lateness
Questions about two coding issues in particular have arisen over the period that I have been writing this series: term-time holidays and lateness.
Both of these require the school to make their expectations clear but, given the complexity of family circumstances that could be relevant, they also highlight the difficulty of acting in ways that are both fair and transparent.
The most recent parental prosecution figures suggest that there has been widespread use of penalty notice fines for short periods of unauthorised term-time leave. However, closer analysis shows that the action taken varies widely between different local authorities. Some have issued none at all; some will do so for just a day or two. Just as there was never any entitlement to take leave before, neither was it entirely prohibited under the new regulations. Guidance from the DfE still includes Code H, as well as others, especially C, designed for other kinds of circumstances where leave might be reasonable. There is no requirement to impose a total ban, but the circumstances have to be 'exceptional'. That word is open to different interpretations and some of the well-publicised cases illustrate just how much the criteria seem to vary.
It is a matter of judgement, not something that can be prescribed for all schools and all families. There is no set percentage attendance above or below which it can be agreed or refused.
If you think the 'exceptional' criteria apply, you can (it's not that you must) grant leave – and there is no limit to how much. If you don't think they apply, you should leave it unauthorised (G), though what happens next will depend more on the decisions of others and your LA's code of conduct.
Only headteachers can make the initial authorisation decision and must, if necessary, be prepared to defend it later if the parent disputes any subsequent fine.
Lateness always poses a problem as there is only one mark to cover a session where the child attended for part and was absent for part.
Some colleagues have told me that they always mark a U (unauthorised absent) if the pupil is not there when the register is called, or at least before the normal registration time closes. That's fine, as long as it is recognised that this will involve recording an offence by the parent when the school bus has broken down, when there were other transport or traffic delays or when the child came in after a genuine early medical appointment. (You shouldn't, in my opinion, use M because they were not absent for the whole session.) However, classing all such sessions as evidence of an offence could be considered unreasonable. Surely U should be reserved for those parents who have deliberately, and probably repeatedly, failed to get the child in on time for no good reason.
This leaves only L (present) for all the rest, even if it is later than usually allowed. At least this recognises that it is better that the child arrived, rather than missing the whole session. If you take a hard line you will risk parents deciding not to bother getting them in because they're going to be marked 'unauthorised absent' anyway. If you are more flexible, you risk some taking advantage. Again, however, it's your call about what is right, given all the circumstances. The codes give you a framework – they don't always tell you exactly what to do.
Compulsory school age
Finally, I had better point out again that all the DfE coding guidance, and my comments in this series of articles, relate only to children of compulsory school age.
The whole AA/UA system does not apply if they are under or over the set ages (from the beginning of January, April or September following their fifth birthday to the last Friday in June of the school year in which they become 16). This is clearly stated in The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006. You have to adapt your system accordingly and can really only use / \ C and I, plus X for those sessions that are not part of the child or young person's agreed programme.
There can be no unauthorised absences. These children do not feature in your school's official performance tables, but from the queries raised with me, many schools still seem very unclear about this issue and risk making wholly illegal interventions, or at least the threat of them, as a result.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
- Training checklist – To authorise or not to authorise?
- Handout – A-Z of codes: Summary best practice guide
About the author
Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years' experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk