ASCL calls for ‘change of tone’ as survey reveals parental disputes with schools are a factor in pupil absence

The President of the Association of School and College Leaders will today (Friday 8 March) call for a change of tone in the national conversation about education as a survey reveals that nearly a third of teachers have experienced pupils being absent this academic year because parents are in dispute with their school.

Persistent absence in English schools has doubled since before the pandemic, and ASCL commissioned survey app Teacher Tapp to ask teachers and school leaders what reasons they have been given for pupils missing school other than for illness.

Of 8,411 teachers and leaders in state-funded primary and secondary schools, the results were:

Family wants to take a holiday during term time: 87%
Pupil is attending a family event: 76%
Pupil is too anxious about school to attend: 66%
Pupil kept home because they are tired after an event the night before: 51%
Pupil kept home because parent/ carer is in dispute with school: 32%
Pupil wants to work online from home (other than due to illness): 8%

Addressing more than 1,000 delegates at the ASCL Annual Conference in Liverpool, ASCL President John Camp will say he is concerned about the deterioration in the sense of an unwritten “social contract” between families and schools.

He will say: “There are obviously many stories behind those statistics. This is a hugely complex issue. But what I find alarming is those reasons which suggest absence from school may not be seen in the way it used to. And in particular, it is surprising that some children are kept at home because of a dispute with the school.

“Nearly a third of teachers and leaders say this has been given as a reason. When we look just at responses from headteachers – who are most likely to have a complete overview – nearly half say they have been given this as a reason for non-attendance. This is an extreme – but apparently common – example of the fracturing of that unwritten social contract

He will say that it is important to understand and work with parents, many of whom face challenging circumstances, and that “tangible solutions” are needed – such as greater investment in mental health support for children who are suffering from anxiety and depression, and attendance support services to identify what is going wrong and work with families.

And he will say: “But I think something else is also needed. And that is a change of tone in the national conversation about education. An acknowledgement that everybody in public life must do more to talk up the many good things about schools and colleges, and to talk about teaching as the noble profession it is. 

“We have a good education system – it could easily be great. We should be very proud of that.

“It often seems like some politicians and commentators are far too quick to take potshots at schools. Potshots that are often based on confused perceptions, political agendas, and which are generally misplaced.

“Whether that’s by leaping on important and sensitive issues – like sex education and trans or gender-questioning pupils – to generate a cheap headline. Or banning mobile phones – when most schools have already done this. Or whether the school day should be five minutes longer.

“It sometimes feels like death by press release. An endless stream of negative newspaper headlines. With schools used as a political football.

“It should surely be obvious that if we are going to tell parents that school is essential – that – to quote the Department for Education’s own campaign ‘moments matter and attendance counts’ – then education needs to be something that is held in esteem.

“And if politicians and commentators are constantly running down teachers and schools, and giving the impression that we can’t be trusted, then they’re helping to create a division. 

“I don’t, of course, think that this – on its own – is the reason for that fracturing of the social contract that I spoke about. But it certainly doesn’t help. It creates a febrile climate. And when social media is added into the mix, things can get very nasty very quickly. As I am sure many of us have experienced.

“Think also about the impact of all of this on recruitment and retention – which continues to be such a pressing problem for virtually every school and college. How can we expect to recruit the numbers of graduates we need in the profession if the discourse around education is so often negative? 

“This really is the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Being positive about schools and education costs nothing at all. After all, schools and education are the ‘silver bullet’ – as the Prime Minister has himself recognised – to economic growth and a flourishing society.

“Let’s not be naïve. There will always be a robust debate about any education system for the simple reason that it is incredibly important. 

“But we really do need for that debate to be more positive and less corrosive

The President's speech can be read in full here

  All   Primary   Secondary   Headteachers
Family wants to take a holiday during term time 87%   87%   87%   95%
Pupil is attending a family event 76%   72%   80%   88%
Pupil is too anxious about school to attend 66%   45%   87%   76%
Pupil kept home because they are tired after an event the night before 51%   54%   47%   64%
Pupil kept home because parent/ carer is in dispute with school 32%   23%   41%   48%
Pupil wants to work online from home (other than due to illness) 8%   1%   15%   12%
None of these 3%   4%   2%   0%
Not relevant/ cannot answer 2%   2%   2%   3%
Unique responders 8,411   2,944   5,467   490