Absence: Parent penalty notice system under fire

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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With the latest figures showing a rise in unauthorised school absence, school leaders have warned that the current system of parental fines ‘drives a wedge between schools and families’ when the real problem is holiday pricing. Pete Henshaw reports

The system of fining parents who take their children out of school during term-time is “too blunt an instrument” and “drives a wedge between schools and families”, it has been warned.

The number of penalty notices issued to address poor attendance has increased by 75 per cent year-on-year according to the latest Department for Education (DfE) figures.

In 2016/17, a total of 149,300 penalty notices were issued. This has risen sharply to 260,900 in 2017/18. The most common reason for the £60 penalty notices being issued is unauthorised family holidays.

The latest pupil absence statistics for schools in England – also published by the DfE recently – show that both authorised and unauthorised absences have increased year-on-year.

Unauthorised absences are now at their highest since records began – with 1.4 per cent of half-days (or sessions) being missed in 2017/18 compared to 1.3 per cent the year before. Authorised absences, meanwhile, have increased from 3.4 to 3.5 per cent.

The picture for primary schools shows that unauthorised absence rates stand at 1.1 per cent. This has risen consistently since 2015/16 and is more than double the 2006 rate of 0.5 per cent.

The figures show that in 2017/18, 17.6 per cent of pupils missed at least one session due to a family holiday, up from 16.9 per cent in 2016/17.

Indeed, 85.4 per cent of all penalty notices were issued for unauthorised family holiday absence in 2017/18, up from 77.5 per cent in 2016/17.

Penalty Notices: What the guidance says

Penalty notices are issued to parents by schools, local authorities or the police for failing to ensure school attendance. The fine is £60 but can rise to £120 if not paid within 21 days. After 28 days, if the penalty remains unpaid, the local authority must either prosecute or withdraw the notice.
The number of notices issued saw a sharp increase after regulations were amended in September 2013 to state that schools could only grant term-time leave in “exceptional circumstances”.
The recent rise comes after the case of the Isle of Wight Council vs Jon Platt, who had taken his child out of school for a family holiday. In April 2017, the Supreme Court ruled against Mr Platt and said that no children should be taken out of school without good reason.
The Supreme Court ruled that the interpretation of “regular” attendance – a key part of the legal arguments – should be decided “in accordance with the rules prescribed by the school”.
The DfE guidance for schools (September 2018) states: “Headteachers should not grant leave of absence unless there are exceptional circumstances. The headteacher must be satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances based on the individual facts and circumstances of the case which warrant the leave. Where a leave of absence is granted, the headteacher will determine the number of days. A leave of absence is granted entirely at the headteacher’s discretion.”
It adds: “Leave is unlikely, however, to be granted for the purposes of a family holiday as a norm.”

The figures have sparked frustration at the on-going problems of travel companies hiking their prices during school holiday periods and leaving families with little option but to stump up if they want to go away.

Research in 2017 by travel currency firm FairFX found that an average family holiday (two adults, two children) in August cost £905 more than in July and £1,310 more than in June.

The National Association of Head Teachers is calling on the government to act and has warned that the current system of fines is harming relations between schools and parents.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The cumulative effect of missed days can be harmful to children’s education. The best way to ensure children are learning and progressing is for them to attend school during term time.

“This means that requests for time off during term time can only be authorised in exceptional circumstances, which does not normally include holidays.

“However, the system of fines is clearly too blunt an instrument and in many cases it drives a wedge between schools and families. The real problem is holiday pricing. Neither parents nor schools set the prices of holidays. They will both continue to be caught between a rock and hard place without some sensible government intervention.”

The challenge facing school leaders is played out in the DfE’s figures, which show that since 2006 authorised holiday absence has decreased from 0.6 per cent of school sessions to 0.1 per cent. Unauthorised holiday absence, meanwhile, has risen from 0.1 to 0.4 per cent.

For primary schools, holiday absence makes up 0.5 per cent of the overall 1.1 per cent of sessions missed due to unauthorised absence.

Elsewhere, the DfE figures show that one in nine pupils (11.2 per cent) is persistently absent (missing more than 10 per cent of possible sessions) – a rise of 0.4 per cent from 2016/17. The figure rises to 13.9 per cent in secondary schools and these pupils account for almost one-third of all authorised absence and 54 per cent of all unauthorised absence.

Also, absence rates among pupils eligible for free school meals are much higher – 7.6 per cent compared to 4.3 per cent for non-FSM pupils – as is persistent absence, which at 23.6 per cent is more than twice the rate for non-FSM pupils.

Pupils in years 10 and 11 had the highest overall absence rate (6.3 per cent) and persistent absence rate.

  • Statutory guidance: School behaviour and attendance: parental responsibility measures, DfE, last updated January 2017: http://bit.ly/2FAXIDq
  • School attendance: Guidance for schools, DfE, last updated September 2018: http://bit.ly/2UcHE2R

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