Persistent absences are not always as they seem
In 2011, the threshold for persistent absences was reduced from 20% to 15%. Currently, guidance states that a pupil is considered to be persistently absent if he/she is absent from over 15% of school sessions in an academic year; a school day is made up of two sessions; morning and afternoon. However, the guidance is misleading because a child does not have to physically miss a session to be classed as absent. If a child is late and misses registration they will be marked as absent from the morning session which will form part of the schools attendance data.
From September 2015, the Department for Education has confirmed that the threshold will be further reduced to 10%.
For a large number of schools, attendance appears to be a serious issue. But, as I have alluded to above, this is not always because children are missing full or even half days of school. More often than not, schools tell us that their attendance records are bad because 'some parents just find it difficult to get their child to school on time' or a single working parent does not have time to call ahead and obtain permission before taking their child to the doctors. For some schools, attendance can be an issue because of term time holidays. No matter how many policies and penalties it puts in place, families will still take their children out of school during term time to visit family abroad. For many families, travelling outside of the school holidays is the only way they can afford to visit family members abroad.
The real question is, should attendance always reflect badly on the school? There are no 'justification' boxes for the Ofsted Inspectors; they simply mark the school against a national average figure, or whether the school has achieved the required %. There are over 20 different codes to categorise a child's absence but at the end of each academic year these add up to an overall absence figure and this does not necessarily reflect the true picture of attendance at the school.
We are not saying that any type of persistent absence does not have a serious impact on a child's education. Figures show that 73 per cent of pupils who have over 95 per cent attendance achieve five or more GCSEs with grades A* to C. In contrast, only 3 per cent of students who are persistently absent for 15 % of the school year achieve this. However, as with the majority of Government policy and Ofsted guidance, the language is confusing and as a consequence the end results, the facts and the figures can paint a very different picture to the type of absences that are happening on the ground.
But what is the solution? Every school is unique and faces its own social challenges. As a Governor of a large primary school in London, I am often left asking myself the same question: can school inspections ever be subjective? Will it ever be possible for a school to be judged based on anything other than a national average or a %? Or would such a level of subjectiveness make it even harder for people to determine what is and what isn't a good school?