Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has vowed to end a “postcode lottery” on school absence across the country, in what will be a “key component” of his Schools White Paper expected later in the year.

The Department for Education found there was “a radically different approach to sanctions across the country, with some local authorities issuing no fines in 2020-21, while others issued over 1,500”.

In a consultation published on Tuesday, the DfE set out proposals for national rules on attendance, including when parents should be issued with fines for their child’s absence.

Fines could be considered after a certain number of unauthorised absences from a pupil within a certain period and for persistent incidents of lateness, the proposals say.

Coronavirus – Fri Jan 21, 2022
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (James Manning/PA)

Parents will not be fined if their child is absent for coronavirus-related reasons, under the proposals.

Mr Zahawi said:  “I want every single child to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, which only time in school with this country’s world-class teachers can bring.”

“And as we transition from pandemic to endemic, it makes me even more determined to fight for children to be in school every day they possibly can be,” he added.

Mr Zahawi said that absence caused by coronavirus was “unavoidable”, but that there were other reasons pupils missed out on school.

“Our new proposals will end the postcode lottery of how attendance is managed in different schools and parts of the country, and make sure every child and family gets the best possible support to attend school as regularly as possible,” he added.

Schools Minister Robin Walker said: “We know that Covid has led to some unavoidable absences from school but that makes it even more important to reduce avoidable absence.”

The consultation proposes that schools should publish an attendance policy, and says that the “most effective” schools have high expectations for each individual pupil’s attendance and analyse attendance data to drive improvements.

It says that “whilst many schools have some version of a whole school attendance policy, there is great variety in their quality” or how often they are updated, as schools are not required to publish them.

It adds that Mr Zahawi has “signalled his intention” for attendance to be a “key component” of the upcoming Schools White Paper.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The Education Secretary has made clear the importance he places on attendance at school or college. We welcome his commitment to addressing an issue which has a major impact on children’s life chances.”

But she added: “While these proposals appear broadly sensible, the reasons behind persistent absence among some children and young people are complex and need to be addressed through a joined-up government strategy that includes looking in depth at issues such as child poverty and mental health, as well as the impact of the pandemic.”

“This is a complex problem, which requires joined-up strategies, appropriate resources and a long-term commitment from Government downwards.”

The news follows DfE estimates on Tuesday that 5.1% of all pupils were off school because of Covid on January 20, up from 3.9% on January 6 – a record high for this school year, with 415,300 pupils absent in total.

The consultation will run for five weeks until February 28.