Pupil Absence

25 Aug

Granting leave of absence to pupils has become a chestnut for many Headteachers.  Firstly, there is confusion on what they may or may not permit especially in the light of the strident direction that the former secretary of state, Michael Gove, gave about headteachers not being allowed to grant up to 10 days’ absence a year during term time for any except compelling reasons.

The headteacher can authorise absence only after taking account of the nature of the event for which leave is sought, the frequency of such requests, whether the parents give advance notice, the pupil’s attainment, and attendance record and ability to catch up on the missed schooling. Where leave of absence is granted, the Headteacher determines the number of days the pupil can be away from school.  Given that it is possible for pupils to engage in distance learning through the managed learning environment (MLE), administering the system should not cause that much grief either to families or for the schools.

However, schools also have to take account of what the Ofsted watchdog is likely to do when their inspectors visits.  Mindful of attaining an outstanding grade they are (not unnaturally) loathe having their pupil attendance statistics marred by pupils (legitimately) taking exceptional time off.

Sadly, there have been a number of horror stories recently that have been grabbing the media headlines.    

Curtis Ingrouille-Kidd is quadriplegic, epileptic and a terminally ill teenager.  He enjoys the rocking motion of boats and loves swimming.  His mother, Maxine, wanted to celebrate her silver wedding anniversary by taking him on a cruise, what may well have been his last holiday.  She tried to book for the autumn half-term, but no wheelchair-friendly cabins were available. Rather than give up, she asked the school for permission to miss a week and was refused because the DfE guidance was that school attendance had to take priority over joyful, absorbing, memorable experiences.   But what if the child concerned has his/her days numbered?

If Maxine fails to comply, she and her husband will be fined £60.   If they refuse to pay, she will be sued and could be sentenced for up to three months in jail and fined £2,500.   (At the time of writing this, the matter had not been resolved.)

Heads can only grant permission in “exceptional” circumstances, such as attendance at the funerals of close relatives. It means that hundreds of thousands of working parents who cannot get leave in school breaks or cannot afford a holiday at peak-time prices or who would like their children to attend term-time weddings or graduations are faced with breaking the law or depriving their children of participation in special family events.

There are a number of other sad cases.   The father of a seven-year-old with a brain tumour was told that he could not go away with her for five days in term time.   A Ministry of Defence security guard, who couldn’t get school-holiday leave and so took his wife and children to Greece for their first family break in five years, had to pay £1,000 in fines and costs.

For many families, organising family holidays is prohibitive during school holiday times.   A teacher on maternity leave said that she could not afford to take her children away during the peak period because it would cost £970, but could do so in term time at a cost of £380.

Some employers find the constraints suffocating – especially where staff are required to work during the school holiday periods.  Take the police.  The chief constable of Humberside wrote to schools explaining that for operational reasons most officers had to be on duty at Christmas and in the summer. The Police Federation says that events such as the Commonwealth Games or the marching season in Northern Ireland make holidays very awkward for forces. It asked every council to ensure that no officers were fined for taking children away during term time.

Altogether, 71% of teachers disapprove of the current policy and two thirds said short absences from primary schools did no harm at all. Over 50% of parents thought a few days away was fine; almost half had taken their children out themselves.

John Cosgrove, head of Christ the King Catholic Primary School in Reading, Berkshire, analysed his 11-year-old pupils’ Standard Assessment Test (SAT) results over the last two years and discovered that in reading, writing, grammar and mathematics, those who had taken family holidays in school time outperformed those who had not.

In a letter to Nicky Morgan, the new Secretary of State, he said: “The unfortunate reality for many of my pupils is that if their families don’t go away on holiday in term time they won’t go away on holiday at all.”  This is presumably because travel and hotel costs rocket during the school holidays and many of his pupils are of working class backgrounds.

When my children were young, my wife sometimes kept them away from school if their regular teachers were absent and supply teachers were simply doing baby-sitting jobs.   She used the time to take them to museums, exhibitions and art galleries where they learnt considerably a lot more than they would have done at school.   In today’s climate, we probably would have been jailed for doing so.

In the meantime, 64,000 parents have been fined for pupil truancy since the new rules were introduced in September 2013.   This is a 70% increase on the previous year.

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