The Issue - Attendance policies

24th September 2010 at 01:00
If luvies can do it, why can't ordinary folk? Schools have to tread a fine line on extended breaks during term time

Emma Thompson is not a renowned trendsetter. But the actor did spark debate when she announced that she would be removing her ten-year-old daughter from school for up to a year.

She believes that Gaia will learn just as much travelling the world as she would in the classroom, but it does leave her school in an undeniably tricky position.

"The continuity of the child's education must be disrupted if they are taken out of the system for extended periods," argues Philip Parkin, general secretary of teachers' union Voice.

He admits, however, that if a parent's mind is set, there is little the school can do to dissuade them. In such scenarios, school leaders are often unsure about what to do next, says Sarah Goodman, senior researcher at The Key, an information and guidance service for headteachers.

Many heads are all too familiar with holidays spilling over into term time. Usually it is only a few days here and there, but more prolonged absence raises a new set of issues.

The law is clear, though: heads can only grant more than ten days' absence in "exceptional circumstances". Where pupils do not come back after ten days of unauthorised absence, they may be removed from the school roll. This means they may have to reapply for admission or look for a place at another school.

Schools should already have attendance policies in place, but the Government recommends all requests are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. A number of factors should be taken into account. These include whether exams are approaching, the pupil's age, attendance record and perceived ability to catch up.

Parents have a responsibility to inform the school in advance and explain why they want their child to take a prolonged absence. The desire for a cheaper holiday is not a valid reason.

Parents may insist that they will be taking care of their child's education during a period of absence, but if they are remaining in this country this is subject to local authority scrutiny.

"If a child is removed from the school roll for a short period of time to be home schooled the local education authority will undertake a check," says Steve Shawcross from Camden Council in north London. If the alternative education is deemed unsuitable, a school attendance order may be issued, forcing parents to enrol their child at school. But it rarely comes to this.

Should parents remove their child from school and from the country, however, the council has "no jurisdiction or legal responsibility" to monitor their education, Mr Shawcross adds.

"There is a case to be made for the law compelling school attendance, with obvious exceptions," says Mr Parkin. In the meantime, schools can only learn from existing best practice.

"Many schools provide a form for parents to fill in and will often ask them to come to a meeting with the head," Ms Goodman says. "It is an opportunity to discuss how the pupil can keep in touch while abroad and catch up on return."

But staff should be under no obligation to set work or teach via the internet, stresses Mr Parkin. "Teachers are there to teach pupils in the school, not provide remote teaching," he says.

Once the child re-enters the classroom, they may struggle to re-integrate with friends or adjust to a routine. "Teachers are placed in a difficult position if they are required to go over the curriculum they have taught in the pupil's absence," adds Mr Parkin. "Many will do their best - but it will inevitably be second best."

What the law says

- Headteachers can only grant more than ten days' absence in "exceptional circumstances".

- If pupils do not come back within ten days, they may be taken off roll.

- Schools should inform their local authority via the education welfare officer.

- The local authority will check the suitability of alternative education. For more advice, visit http:tinyurl.com34vtub2.

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