Government plans to crack down on parents who take children out of school for family holidays have proved controversial. Now Leeds city council has decided not to follow the ruling. Neil Hudson reports.
Leeds City Council has issued a statement declaring that parents who take their children out of school for five days or fewer will NOT be issued with fines, following the introduction of a so-called ‘zero tolerance’ regime last month.
Education Secretary Michael Gove announced he had removed headteachers’ right to give parents 10 days of discretionary leave, arguing some parents came to view the period as an entitlement.
In September parents of children aged four and above received letters explaining that from now on any unauthorised absence would be met with a fine, unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ could be proved.
However, the Yorkshire Evening Post can today reveal that Leeds City Council has issued guidance to its schools saying fines will NOT be issued for any absences of five days or fewer per term.
It was at pains to stress, however, that this was not a green light to parents to take unauthorised holidays and said any school absences would be closely monitored.
The Leeds ruling would give parents 15 days per year in which they could take their children out of school without being issued with a fine.
It is the second time the Labour controlled council has been at odds with the Government.
Last year, when the so-called bedroom tax was imposed, the council re-classified hundreds of homes so residents could avoid losing out on benefits. The new ruling on absences comes following consultation with council lawyers, who believe that if a parent were to challenge a fine for taking their child out of school during term time and the period was five days or fewer, magistrates would throw the case out of court, thereby setting a legal precedent.
The Leeds stance could have far-reaching implications for other local authorities.
In a statement to the YEP, Coun Judith Blake, executive member for children’s services in Leeds, said: “In Leeds, fines will not be issued for fewer than five days’ absence in a term or 12-week period. This can be a block of five days, or five separate days across the period.”
Parents across the country have been angered by Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new ‘zero tolerance’ crackdown on term-time holidays. Some argue that taking a holiday outside school term means paying hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pounds over the odds.
One irate parent, Paul Cookson, posted a picture on Facebook which captured the dilemma facing parents - the image shows the price difference for a holiday at Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest between school term and school holiday. The difference is a whopping £300.
Under the new ‘zero tolerance’ rules, headteachers will only allow pupils time off in ‘exceptional circumstances.’
The new rules apply to all children aged five-16.
Schools will be able to refer parents who ignore the law to the local authority, which could issue a £60 fixed penalty notice per child, per parent.
That means a fine of £120 if a child has two parents.
Parents will have 21 days to pay or the fines will be doubled and, if not paid, parents could be taken to court.
Councillor Judith Blake, executive member for children’s services said: “This is a change in legislation by national government and we do not have a choice in the matter.
“We wrote to parents to make them aware of the changes.
It’s important to note the penalty notice scheme is not new.
“Headteachers, schools and governing bodies have been working with this since 2007 as an alternative to prosecution.
“We understand individual circumstances are unique.
“However, the government has made it clear how it expects headteachers to deal with requests to take children out of school and we encourage parents to talk to schools as early as possible.”
“Headteachers are no longer allowed to authorise up to 10 days leave for a holiday.
“In Leeds, fines will not be issued for fewer than five days absence in a term or 12-week period.
“This can be a block of five days, or five separate days across the period.
“It is at the discretion of headteachers to consider requests for leave in term time.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said today the decision by Leeds City Council was not illegal and was in keeping with the legislation, adding that local authorities were free to interpret the new code of conduct as they saw fit.
A spokeswoman for Center Parcs said: “Like many other companies, our prices are set according to demand.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Children who attend school regularly are nearly four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs than those who are regularly absent.
“That is why we have encouraged schools to tackle poor attendance earlier, and toughened the law on term time holidays. We have also increased the amount parents can be fined for unauthorised absences and cut the amount of time they have to pay.
“Councils set the codes of conduct on issuing penalty notices. We expect these to be robust and send a clear message to parents of the importance of their child’s regular attendance at school.”