U-turn over fines for parents who take their children out of school
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A U-turn over when to fine parents for taking their children out of school has led to a drastic fall in the number of punishments, the EDP can reveal today.
New figures show that thousands fewer Norfolk parents have been handed fixed-penalty notices for unauthorised absences so far in this school year.
It comes as it can be revealed that Norfolk County Council has relaxed its stance on fines, deciding not to punish parents who take their children out of school for holidays without permission, if their overall attendance is good.
Ian Clayton, principal of Thorpe St Andrew School, suggested the fall was the result of a backlash from parents over a record number of fines issued in Norfolk in 2014-15, rather than because of improvement attendance.
The latest figures were not yet available for Suffolk, which has also traditionally issued fines to parents on a frequent basis.
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Parents can be fined £60 per child for poor attendance, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days. If they do not pay, they can be prosecuted.
The change of policy follows a High Court ruling in May, when Jon Platt, a parent from the Isle of Wight, was told he did not have to pay a fine for an unauthorised holiday, because his daughter had attended school regularly overall.
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A Norfolk County Council spokesperson said: 'All councils are awaiting new guidelines from the government regarding the law on unauthorised absences which is the subject of a High Court appeal.
'There is no question of fines being returned and we would continue to appeal to parents not to take their children out of school during term time to maintain their progress. There is no question of penalty notices being refunded and we will continue to issue penalty notices where there are other unauthorised absences which take the attendance percentage below 90pc in a 12-week period.'
She added there 'may well be further clarification in the autumn term'.
A Freedom of Information request by Mr Platt has revealed a massive drop in the number of parents fined by Norfolk County Council so far this school year, although the council told him it was 'unable to explain the reduction in numbers'.
In the 2014-15 school year, it issued 5,215 fixed-penalty notices, which has fallen to 1,441 so far in 2015-16.
Last year, only Suffolk County Council issued more fines – 5,294 – compared to 4,471 so far this school year.
One Norfolk headteacher, who asked not to be named, said: 'My suggestion would be that heads are unsure due to the court case, and whether their decision will be challenged publicly.'
The government is funding the Isle of Wight's application to the Supreme Court to appeal against the High Court judgement.
Suffolk County Council has previously said the authority, through the county attendance team, encourages an early intervention process in relation to truancy and the underlying issues for lateness or attendance are scrutinised. Each case considered for court is then reviewed and the evidence evaluated against the known issues with the family involved.
Principal: Backlash has led to fall
A backlash from angry parents has driven the dramatic fall in the number of fines issued for poor attendance, the principal of Norfolk's biggest school has said.
The government tightened the rules on fixed-penalty notices in 2013, saying heads could only authorise time off in 'exceptional circumstances'. Previously, they could allow up to 10 days out of school for a family holiday in 'special circumstances'.
In 2014-15, Norfolk and Suffolk issued the most fines in England, but now Ian Clayton, principal of Thorpe St Andrew School, has said high number of fines triggered an angry response from parents, which made heads more reluctant to authorise them this year. He said: 'I'm surprised it's a drop to that extent, but I'm not surprised there has been a drop in the figures. It was a policy that was causing real conflicts with some parents and was not doing what it was supposed to do.
'I don't think it was effective, and in terms of making changes to attendance figures, for my school it had little or no effect whatsoever. There's still a big job to do in the education of some parents about the issues, but there's also the balance lacking about the importance of family holidays.'
According to government figures, the overall absence rate in Norfolk schools fell from 5.7pc to 4.8pc between 2012-13, the year before the government changed the rules on authorised absences, and 2013-14. The number of penalty notices rose from 98 to 490 in the same period. In the following year, when the number of penalty notices rocketed to 5,215, the overall absence rate remained the same, at 4.8pc.