Schools in Northumberland have backed off handing out fines to parents if their children miss school, figures from the Department for Education have shown, reflecting a national drop for the first time.
Fewer fines were handed out to parents in the county for their children’s unauthorised absence from school last year, despite statistics showing that the number of persistently absent pupils increased.
The numbers, for the 2016/17 academic year, show that 232 penalty notices were handed out to parents, 6% fewer than in the previous year.
However, the number of persistently absent children – those missing at least 10% of their allocated teaching time – in the county stood at 3,862, a 3% increase on 2015/16.
In total, the local authority raised £8,940 through 141 fines paid by parents, with 47% of fines issued for children being taken on unauthorised holidays during term-time.
Northumberland has a lower rate of fines than the national average, with six notices issued for every 1,000 pupils, compared to 22 for England.
Across England, 149,321 penalty notices were issued to parents in 2016/17, a 5% drop on the previous year, and the first decrease since data started being collected in 2009/10.
Coun Wayne Daley, cabinet member for children’s services at Northumberland County Council, said: “As a council, we are clear that regular attendance at school is extremely important.
“We are committed to driving down all types of absence, with newly published data showing a story of success for both Northumberland schools and the council’s education welfare service.
“In both, the primary and secondary phases overall absence is lower than both the national average and North East averages, and for a low level of persistent absence in the secondary phase we are the top performing local authority in the North East.
“In relation to fines for unauthorised absence the council provides a code of conduct and guidance to schools, and monitors their attendance policies and overall absences each year. While the council issues fixed penalty notices, it is the schools themselves which decide when a fine should be levied.
“That said, I think that people will agree that it is difficult to draw particular conclusions for Northumberland from these figures about fines, particularly given that they seem to reflect a national trend.”
Local authorities impose their own rules on when parents can be given penalty notices over their children’s absence from school.
Fines are £60 if paid within 21 days, and £120 within 28 days.
Councils can prosecute parents if penalty notices remain unpaid after 28 days. Last year, 60 cases were taken to court in Northumberland for non-payment.
Parents can receive a fine of up to £2,500, a community order or a jail sentence of up to three months if prosecuted.
The local authority withdrew two cases, 1% of all the penalty notices issued, following non-payment of fines.
Collectively, local authorities raised over £6.4million in fines across the academic year.
The highest rate of penalty notices was in Luton, where 3,244 were issued last year, at over four times the national rate.
In a high-profile case in April 2017, Isle of Wight father Jon Platt lost an appeal in the Supreme Court against his £120 fine for taking his daughter on an unauthorised trip to Disney World Florida during term-time. The Department for Education suggested that the
drop in fines nationally could have been caused by local authorities waiting to see the outcome of the case.
Darren Northcott, the national official for education at the teachers’ union NASUWT, said that the robust defence provided by the Department for Education for schools’ right to fine parents in the case showed that the structure was in place to encourage parents to get their children into school.
He said: “We have always been clear: absences during term-time should only occur in very exceptional circumstances, such as illness and family emergencies.
“Every day in school counts, and every lesson counts. Fines are an absolute last resort and only given if families have had the support they need to try and improve their absence rates.”
Mr Northcott added that he could sympathise with parents taking children out of school for term-time holidays, and that the increase of package holiday prices during school holidays should be investigated.
Links to data: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/parental-responsibility-measures-2016-to-2017-academic-year