The Government’s crackdown on parents taking kids out of school in term time seems to have backfired in Leeds, with record fines.
The number of penalty fines issued to Leeds parents for taking children out of school without authorisation is already double last year’s figure, with half the year still to go.
In the academic year ending 2013, Leeds City Council education authority issued 210 fines for unauthorised absence. This year already they have issued over 500 fines. If the trend continues, it means the figure could top 1,000 by September – a five-fold increase on last year.
The shocking rise in term-time fines comes in the wake of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s toughening up of the rules governing unauthorised absence. Mr Gove introduced the zero-tolerance approach on school term holidays in September 2013 removing the right of headteachers to grant up to 10 days ‘authorised’ leave, in addition to a shortening the time allowed for parents to pay fines to 21 days.
Part of the rise in fines in Leeds is thought to be down to the fact headteachers no longer have any powers to authorise leave, unless in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
As a local authority, Leeds City Council is duty bound work with schools to see the law is upheld.
News of the Leeds fines figures comes on the back of recent reports that some holiday firms are offering to pay the fines of parents, a move which was described by travel association ABTA as a “gimmick”.
A family composed of two children and two adults taking a holiday in term time would potentially face a fine of £240, which would be doubled to £480 if not paid within 21 days.
In Leeds, education officer Jancis Andrew said: “There are a number of ways of dealing with unauthorised absence from school. Issuing a penalty notice fine is just one of these, and is an alternative to going through the magistrate’s court, although this can be a direct route in some cases.
“In light of the new Government legislation we are now considering if our previous advice about issuing fines is fit for purpose.
“We need to assess our position and talk to headteachers about how the scheme is supporting them in improving school attendance across the city.
“Despite the increase in fines issued since September 2013, the vast majority of parents in Leeds are supporting their children to have good attendance at school.
“Every single school day is precious – even just half a day out of school at any age can have a huge impact on a child’s learning and future potential, and there is a clear link between school attendance and attainment.”
According to guidance issued by Leeds City Council parents will not be fined for absences of less then five days in a term but each case is considered on its merits and previous absences are always taken into consideration.
Deputy director of education in Leeds, Paul Brennan was keen to point out that was not a blank cheque for parents: “Some parents may have viewed this guidance as them having an allowance of five days per term, whereas under the law, that is not the case and taking your son or daughter out of school can only be authorised in exceptional circumstances.
“There’s a danger parents look at our advice and see it as an allowance, the reality is taking your children out of school for even half a day is illegal if not authorised.”
Council chiefs have been reluctant to issue fines to parents who take their children out of school for five days or less per term because according to legal advice, such cases would not qualify as “irregular attendance” in the magistrate’s court.
However, council chiefs are now considering reviewing this and could bring court cases which involve absences of less than five days per term.
Under the Education Act 1996, section 444, parents are required by law to make sure their children attend school regularly for 190 days a year. Penalty notices were introduced in 2007 and have been amended several times since then, with the latest change coming in September – when Mr Gove reduced the time that parents have to pay fines.
If a parent chooses to take a child/children out of school in term time, the headteacher can request that the LEA issue a fine - the LEA will then assess the case on its merits and look into the particular circumstances, including previous absences and assess if this would be classed as ‘irregular absence’.
Councillor Judith Blake, deputy leader of Leeds City Council and executive member for children’s services said: “This is a change in legislation by national government, and we, the local authority, schools and parents have no choice but to comply with the new law.
“Regardless of whether or not parents receive a fine, it is against the law for them to take their child out of school to go on holiday for any length of time, and headteachers are simply unable to authorise any such absence unless there are exceptional circumstances.
“The role of the local authority is to support schools and ensure that a consistent approach is adopted across the city.
“The majority of parents in Leeds support their children in having good and regular attendance at school, and recognise that this is the best place for them to be during term-time.”
UNAUTHORISED ABSENCE FINES FACTS
In Leeds this year there have been 500 fines - twice last year’s total, with half the year still to go.
Fines are set at £60 per pupil per parent, meaning a period of unauthorised absence for one child could result in a £120 fine, doubled after 21 days.
Penalty notices were introduced in 2007 as an alternative to taking parents to court.
They have been amended several times, fines being increased in 2012; last year the Government removed headteachers’ powers to grant up to 10 days discretionary absence.