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Are school attendance fines working?

Are school attendance fines working?

/ Scott Biggs

At the end of August, attendance fines will change: fines will go up by £20 and all local authorities will have to consider issuing a fine when a child misses five days of school without permission. While the government claims the rise in fines is in line with inflation, many see it as a direct response to the current attendance problem. However, lots of school leaders we’ve spoken to say that the rising fines won’t move the dial on absences; some even claim it’ll make the situation worse.  

In this blog, I’m going to explore why school leaders and staff are so sceptical about the use of fines to improve attendance, and look into whether fines could reduce absences.  

This blog is based on research we conducted in partnership with Schoolzone in April 2024 to assess the current trends in school attendance. You can see our full findings in this whitepaper 


What’s causing the school absence epidemic? 

Most discussions of absenteeism in school centre on the rise of mental health problems among students. But our research also picked out another key factor: the strained relationship between schools and parents. Many of the school leaders we spoke to pointed to a new, more lax perspective among parents regarding school and regular attendance that they’ve traced back to the pandemic. 

  • Parents that work remotely or in a hybrid setting might believe that, like them, their children don’t need to “go in” every day  
  • Some believe that the virtual learning delivered throughout lockdowns should be made available to students when they’re off school  
  • Many of the SEND cohort thrived in the more comfortable, distraction-free remote learning environment and their parents want them to return to this setting 

In our research, we uncovered that nearly half of secondary schools and a third of primary schools noted a significant decline in the trust parents have for schools, too. Parents are more openly critical about school and staff, and are willing to fight them on things like term time holidays. Some staff have even noted a concerning rise in abusive language and threatening behaviour.  

Although parental disengagement and mental health are at the forefront of the attendance problem, there is another key factor contributing to this issue that pre-dates the pandemic: poverty.  

The relationship between poverty and attendance 

There has always been a strong link between lower-income households and school attendance. Poverty can directly hamper attendance for a number of reasons: 

  1. Poverty can affect health and wellbeing, and impoverished children are more likely be off sick regularly 
  1. Unaffordable extracurricular costs, for example, school day trips or activities 
  1. Poverty can affect brain development and may affect attainment, making school a challenging environment and putting children off attending  

As a result of the current cost of living crisis, socioeconomic inequality will now be having a much more significant impact on attendance.  

That being said, the impact of this isn’t just being felt at the most extreme end of the scale. 37% of primary schools, for example, have noted a significant increase in absence due to holidays taken during term time as parents seek to keep costs low. And with such considerable savings available, they tend to outweigh the fines so parents are now more willing to accept them.  

Are schools fines the right way to improve attendance? 

It quickly became clear during our research that a significant majority of school leaders don’t support the use of school fines. They believe that fines either don’t work or aren’t the right way to tackle this problem.  

Some parents are now open to accepting fines during term time holidays, for example, while others have become savvy about avoiding them, such as taking their child out of school for four days following a bank holiday to avoid the five-day threshold. In fact, one of the most staggering statistics we uncovered in our research was that 86% of primary school respondents and 75% of secondary school respondents believe increasing fines won’t make a difference to parents taking term time holidays. 

There’s also concerns that punishing parents − particularly financially during the current economic situation − might worsen the already-strained relationship between schools and parents. School leaders, instead, have voiced that schools need to rebuild trust with parents and find ways to prove that going to school every day matters.  

Download our whitepaper to find out more 

We conducted our research into school attendance among 498 schools in partnership with Schoolzone. We also interviewed a range of schools and trusts to find out what challenges they are facing in regards to attendance and what they need to do to reduce absences. To see our findings and a comprehensive analysis of the data, download our whitepaper 

This research recently featured in The Guardian in an article on how mental health is driving absences – you can read it here.   

Scott Biggs

Scott Biggs

Principal Educational Consultant