Fines for parents taking children out of school during term time are rocketing
- Credit: PA
Parents are facing increasingly tough punishment for their children being out of school without permission.
New figures show a massive spike in the numbers of fines being issued for unauthorised absences from the classroom or irregular attendance levels.
Last year, 5,483 of the £60 penalty notices were issued to parents in Norfolk and Suffolk - almost seven times more than the previous year and more than 20 times the year before that.
The clampdown comes amid concerns not only about high rates of truancy, but also an increase in parents taking their children out of school during term time to save money on holidays.
Today, education officials reminded parents it was their legal obligation to ensure their children attended school and stood by their tougher stance.
Val Creasy, attendance and exclusion strategy manager for Norfolk County Council, said: 'The bottom line is that the more of school children miss, the more if affects their attainment. A child has a right to an education and we have a duty to ensure they get that.'
The increase comes on the back of a nationwide clampdown on unauthorised absences, with heads and education authorities told to get tough.
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Until September 2013, heads in England could grant up to 10 days' leave a year for family holidays in 'special circumstances', but now they can grant absence outside school holidays only in 'exceptional circumstances'.
In 2014/15 Norfolk County Council issued 2,747 fines for unauthorised absences. That figures has risen 12-fold from 2010/11 when it was 215 and five-fold from 2013/14 when it was 490. Cases prosecuted for non-payment, meanwhile, have also risen.
Ms Creasy said formal action would likely be taken where a child's attendance rate falls to 85pc or lower over a six-week period or they miss 10 consecutive half-days. Schools are advised to write to the parent or guardian first to try to resolve the issues. There are no means of appeal other than the case ending up in court.
The money raised through the fines is used to 'administer the system' and the authority is currently looking at ways to assess the success of the new stance. Figures for persistent truancy are falling nationwide and locally, however.
Brian Conway, head of Notre Dame High School, in Norwich, and chairman of the Norfolk Secondary Education Leaders group, described fines as 'a last resort' but welcomed the tougher approach.
He added: 'We only use fines when everything else has failed. We work really hard to work with parents to try and make sure their children are in school.
'I think these figures reflect the importance of children being in school. Headteachers realise that if they are missing they are going to fall behind. We are doing it for the benefit of the child.'
In Suffolk 2,736 fines were issued in 2014/15, compared to 41 in 2010/11 and 338 in 2013/14. Suffolk County Council also revealed it had collected £104,580 in fines from parents in 2014/15, which it says will be 'invested in processes to improve school attendance'.
Suffolk's education chief Lisa Chambers said: 'This rise in the number of fixed penalty notices issued by schools demonstrates that there is greater challenge by schools to parents and carers who fail to send their children to school.'
Cambridgeshire County Council, meanwhile, has seen fines rise but not to the same extent. It issued just 15 fines in 2010/11, 393 in 2013/14 and 315 in 2014/15.
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said the scale of the fines were an indictment of current poor standards of education within too many schools.
'The problem here is that some parents do not value the education their child is receiving, so are happy to pull them out of school,' he said.
While the campaign group was not against the handing out of fines, Mr McGovern said headteachers should be given more flexibility to grant days off.
The latest national figures suggest school attendance is gradually improving across the country.
Nationally the percentage of half-days missed without permission has fallen slightly from 1.1pc in 2010/11 to 1pc in 2013/14. In Norfolk the figures was and remains 1.1pc, Suffolk has fallen from 1pc to 0.9pc and Cambridgeshire has actually risen from 0.9pc to 1.1pc.
What has fallen dramatically, however, is the percentage of persistent absentees amongst schoolchildren. In Norfolk that figure fell from 6pc in 2011/12 to 3.8pc in 2013/14 and Suffolk from 5.7pc to 3.6pc.
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The fines start at £60 but can rise to £120 if not paid within 28 days and can even lead to court summons if not paid at all or the absences continue. An analysis of the figures – obtained using the Freedom of Information Act – suggests that if all £60 fines were paid within 28 days, the total amount collected for Norfolk and Suffolk would be £328,980.
Changes to the law on school absences were introduced by the Department for Education in 2013 as part of the government's drive to improve levels of student attainment.
Michael Gove, pictured, who was secretary of state for education at the time, had highlighted, in 2011, the 'missing million' children who were absent from school for more than three weeks. He spoke of an 'educational under-class' of children who had slipped outside mainstream education, and asked for a report to be produced by Charlie Taylor, the government's expert on child behaviour.
Mr Taylor's report, Improving attendance in school, highlighted a 'clear link between poor attendance at school and lower academic achievement' and said that, despite improvements, there was a 'small number of children who are persistently absent'.
The report also made a number of recommendations including 'strengthening the rules on term time holidays' and making it simpler to fine parents. The National Union of Teachers criticised the change, which its general secretary Christine Blower said caused 'great anger amongst parents, is not supported by the majority of teachers and creates unnecessary tension between schools and families'.
The DfE, however, has highlighted reductions in the number of unauthorised absence as evidence of the policy's success.
'The myth that pulling a child out of education for holidays is harmless to their education has been disproved by evidence,' a spokesman said.
'Allowing pupils to regularly miss school can be hugely detrimental to a child's life chances.
'The most recent annual figures show we are making progress, with almost 200,000 fewer pupils regularly missing school compared to five years ago.'