Improving attendance – sticks or carrots?


Responsibility for attendance and behaviour is not just down to the school. DfE guidance is outlining even more clearly the punitive measures that schools can take against parents. But will they work?


  • Schools have various legal tools that can be used to enforce attendance.
  • However schools should weigh up the potential negative consequences against possible gains to develop a balanced approach of sanctions and rewards.



‘There is a clear link between poor attendance at school and lower academic achievement. Of pupils who miss more than 50% of school, only 3% manage to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including Maths and English.’

Improving attendance at school, Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor’s document Improving attendance at school heralded a hard-hitting campaign that included in its approach not only encouraging good attendance, but also punishing parents when it was bad. The ground was being laid for schools to take a more punitive approach towards those who do not attend regularly. Particularly controversial was the suggestion that perhaps unpaid fines should be taken directly from benefits.

Parental responsibility measures for school attendance and behaviour was published in November 2013. It reinforces the DfE’s approach by reminding schools that they do have legal powers that they can use to address poor attendance and behaviour.

The document is statutory guidance. Schools do not have to follow it by law, but there is an expectation that they will and must have good reasons for not doing so. However, there are mixed views on the extent to which taking such a hard line with parents works. With changes to the flexibility with which schools can view parents’ requests for term-time holiday, some parents are hitting back at policies that they see as controlling their behaviour as much as that of their child.

In this article we consider the measures that are available for schools to use and some arguments against using them.

The legal powers

The government is keen for schools to emphasise the important role that parents have in their child’s education. What happens, though, if parents do not comply with the expectations of the school for attendance and behaviour? Parental responsibility measures for school attendance and behaviour outlines the alternatives.

Education supervision orders

Education supervision orders (ESOs) must be considered prior to prosecuting parents. An ESO means that the local authority (LA) is appointed by the court to supervise a child’s education, either at school or at home, for a specified period of time.

Parenting contracts

A parenting contract is a formal written and signed agreement between parents and either the LA or the governing body of a school. It should specify what is required of parents for a set period of time and what support and associated funding will be provided by the LA or governing body to help parents to comply with the contract. These contracts are voluntary, but if parents do not comply, they can be used as evidence where an application is made for a behaviour parenting order.

Parenting orders

These are imposed by a court and no agreement from parents is required. They can be applied for by a LA following a successful prosecution, or by a governing body or LA via a Magistrates’ Court.

They consist of a requirement for parents to attend counselling or guidance sessions, as well as requirements with which the parents must comply. The orders must be supervised by a ‘responsible officer’ from the school or LA who is named in the order. Breach of the order can lead to a fine of up to L1,000.

Penalty notices (PNs) PNs are fines of £60/£120 that can be imposed on parents if their child does not regularly attend school, where the pupil’s absence has not been authorised or where a child is in a public place during school hours during the first five days of an exclusion.

They can be issued by a headteacher, deputy or assistant head and LA officer or the police. Schools are increasingly issuing these for holidays taken during term-time without the school’s permission. The LA should have a code of conduct that schools can follow.


Although there have been moves to extend the responsibility, at present only LAs can prosecute parents. There are two offences:

  1. Where a parent fails to secure a child’s regular attendance – this includes a level 3 fine of up to £1,000.
  2. Where a parent knows that the child is not attending school and fails to ensure that they do – this can incur a fine at level 4 of up to £2,500 and potentially imprisonment for up to three months.

Parents can also be prosecuted if their child is found in a public place during schools hours after they have been excluded from school.

The arguments against

Talking tough to parents and issuing fines carries with it a popular view that being stricter will yield better results. There are those who disagree, believing that such measures do not tackle the root causes of youth offending and instead represent a populist measure applied to a complex problem.

Dr Raymond Arthur is Reader in Law at the School of Law at Northumbria University. He is particularly concerned that prosecuting parents is not the answer to improving attendance. Such measures can ‘reduce the responsibility of society, encouraging a blaming culture that does not take account of the full circumstances and leads to ineffective, punitive sanctions rather than the holistic support-based interventions which are required.’

Instead, he would prefer to see a more progressive approach to truancy prevention: ‘There is a need for prevention policies and interventions to avoid a narrow focus on parents and to take into account the family, social and contextual factors that are frequently associated with youth offending.’

Linda Dean, Managing Director of the national youth support charity Rathbone, believes that a greater emphasis on identifying young people’s individual needs achieves the best results in tackling truancy: ‘In our experience the greatest success in keeping young people in school occurs when they receive personal needs-based support which gives them encouragement and guidance and also takes into account their health and well-being.’

Referring to the Lancashire Education Alternative Provision programme set up by Rathbone in 2006, she says, ‘In the last five years every young person in LEAP has successfully achieved all of the qualifications they have enrolled for and also progressed to study at college, gain an apprenticeship, or begin training or employment.’

Most schools will choose to blend the punitive measures with their own series of rewards, incentives and interventions. Finding the balance is not always easy. Perhaps future attendance figures and trend analysis will be able to show whether the government’s current strategy is working or not.

Further information

  • Parental responsibility measures for school attendance and behaviour: statutory guidance for maintained schools, academies, local authorities and the police, DfE, 2013,
  • Improving attendance at school, Charlie Taylor, DfE, 2012,


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First published on this website in March 2014.

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About Author

Dr. Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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