Parents face higher fines for school absences as part of attendance drive

Parents in England who take their children out of class without permission will face higher fines as part of a drive to boost school attendance following the pandemic.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said a fine must be considered if a child misses five days of school for unauthorised absence.

School absence fines currently start at £60, rising to £120 if they are not paid within 21 days. But the DfE has said fines will now start at £80, rising to £160.

Nearly nine in ten (89.3%) of the fines were for unauthorised holidays as families looked to book cheaper vacations outside school term times, according to DfE figures released in December.

Government guidance is expected to clarify when financial penalties for school absences should be used to ensure councils issue fines appropriately.

The DfE has said school absence fines will be brought under a national framework to help tackle inconsistencies in their use across England.

Under the new measures – which have been announced as part of the Government’s efforts to try to cut down on the number of children who are regularly missing school – every state school in England will share their daily attendance registers with the DfE, councils and academy trusts.

It is understood the higher fines for absences will come into effect from September.

The DfE hopes the data set will help schools spot and support children at risk of persistent absence, or in danger of becoming missing from education.

Guidance – setting out how schools and local authorities must take a “support-first” approach to help pupils and their families to tackle barriers to attendance – will be made statutory from August, the DfE has said.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “Our fantastic schools and teachers unlock children’s imagination, potential and social skills which is why improving attendance is my number one priority.

“Today we are taking that next step to further boost attendance and I want to thank those who are working with us including teachers and heads.

“Education standards have risen sharply across the country, with Ofsted ratings up from 68% to nearly 90% since 2010 – and pupils’ performance is ranked as some of the best globally – so it has never been more valuable to be in school.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “A consistent national framework for fines makes sense. Currently there is significant variation between how and when local authorities issue fines to parents.

“Good attendance is obviously critically important, but fines have long proven to be too blunt a tool and largely ineffective at improving persistent absence.”

He added: “What is really needed to tackle poor attendance is more targeted resources to find out the reasons behind absence, including support for vulnerable families and for children and young people’s mental health.

“Without that work, higher fines could just be further punishing already struggling families and children.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is not unreasonable to increase the level of fines for unauthorised absence given that they have been fixed at £60 for several years.

“However, it is important to understand that these fines predominately relate to pupils who are taken out of school for term-time holidays. While nobody wants to be in a position of fining parents there simply has to be a marker that this is not acceptable.

“Not only does it affect the child’s education but it means teachers then have to spend time helping children to catch-up with lost learning. If everybody did this it would be chaos.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “The Conservatives are only just waking up to the damage of persistent absence that has reached historic levels on their watch, but their answer addresses the symptoms of absence, not the causes.

“Persistent absence was rising long before the pandemic – the result of growing unaddressed mental ill health and the impact of years of economic decline hitting family finances and a breakdown of trust between schools and families.

“The Tories should follow Labour’s plan to tackle absence, introduce a register of children not in school, bringing together children’s existing records and investing in access to mental health counselling support in every school to deal with persistent absence once and for all.”

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