Thousands of parents face court action over pupil truancy
The numbers of parents being taken to court over their child skipping school is rising, with thousands facing action last year.
Figures obtained by the Press Association also show that growing numbers are being convicted of truancy offences, facing fines, and in some cases even being sent to jail.
In total, 16,430 people in England were prosecuted for failing to ensure that a child went to school in 2014 - equivalent to around 86 cases for each day of the school year.
This is up a quarter on 2013 when 13,128 people were taken to court.
The hikes come in the wake of a major crackdown on children missing school, including strict new rules on term-time holidays introduced two years ago.
Head teachers said that while it may not always be easy for parents to ensure their child goes to school, particularly with teenagers, it is their responsibility and if there are problems they should talk to the school.
Parenting group Netmums said that in some cases, a fine or threat of jail can be enough to make a parent understand the seriousness of their child missing school, but warned that in many others, truancy is a complicated issue and families may need professional support rather than court action.
Ministry of Justice statistics gathered by the Press Association through a freedom of information request show that of those taken to court last year, around three-quarters (76%) - 12,479 - were found guilty, a 22% jump on the year before.
The number of fines handed out by the courts rose by 30% between 2013 and 2014. Last year 9,214 parents were issued with fines, 74% of those who were found guilty. On average, they were ordered to pay £172.
The figures also show that the number of people handed jail time more than doubled, with 18 given custodial sentences in 2014, up from seven the year before. Of those jailed last year, for where figures are available, four were men and 10 were women.
A breakdown of the statistics, which refer to two truancy-related offences under the Education Act 1996, reveal that women are much more likely to be found guilty than men, making up three-fifths of those convicted.
While women make up more than half (58%) of those fined for a child missing school, there has been a big jump in the number of men hit with financial penalties - up 41%.
Rachel Burrows from Netmums said: “Long-term truancy is a complicated issue and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In many cases, the family may be in crisis or face issues such as a parent with mental health problems or addictions. In these cases, fines or jail won’t help as the mum or dad needs professional support to turn their lives around and be a better parent.
“But in other cases, a fine or the threat of jail may be enough to make parents understand how serious the situation is. Education is vital to a child’s success and attendance isn’t optional. By setting a good example and insisting children get to school on time, parents are teaching their child basic manners and timekeeping skills and setting them up for a successful future.”
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Good attendance is absolutely critical to the education and future prospects of young people. Research has repeatedly and clearly shown that young people whose attendance is good are far more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs.
“Schools have rightly responded to this overwhelming evidence by taking a strong line in identifying when children are absent without a valid reason, particularly where there is persistent truancy. They work closely with education welfare officers, and where they cannot obtain a response from parents are now more likely to move to court action at an early stage.
“It may not always be easy for parents to ensure that their children go to school, particularly in the case of older children, but it remains a parental responsibility, and if they are having problems they need to talk to their school to work out a solution.”
He suggested that the increase in fines could be down to the new rules on parents taking children out of school for term-time holidays.
“If they do so without the school’s authorisation they are issued with a fixed penalty, but where the penalty is not paid it may result in court action,” Mr Trobe said.
Parents who take children out of school without permission can face a £60 fine per child, rising to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days. Those who fail to pay may be prosecuted, with a maximum fine of £2,500 or a jail sentence of up to three months.
David Simmonds of the Local Government Association said: “We believe that the rise in court action and fines issued reflects a rapidly rising school population and tighter enforcement by schools that are under pressure from Ofsted to meet attendance targets.
“Whilst everyone wants children in school learning, there are sometimes circumstances where absence is unavoidable or important for wider family reasons. Head teachers know the circumstances of their pupils’ families and what’s going on in their school throughout the year and should be trusted to make decisions about a child’s absence from school without being forced to issue fines and start prosecutions in situations where they believe the absence is reasonable.
“Evidence shows that persistent truancy damages a child’s life chances and across the country councils are supporting both children and their families to overcome barriers that could be preventing a child from regularly attending school. While councils will support parents as much as possible, if they refuse to get their children to school, fines may be issued and ultimately court action will be taken.”
An Ofsted spokesman said: “ Attendance in schools is of the utmost importance to Ofsted and is something that inspectors look at during all school inspections.
“Pupils who are truanting are not only missing out on their education, but are also at risk of harm. It is therefore right that schools should set high expectations for parents and pupils when it comes to attendance and that Ofsted should inspect this.”
Parent Stewart Sutherland said he felt “very sore” to be fined and left with costs to pay after challenging the penalty in court.
Mr Sutherland, who works for the Ministry of Defence, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme his family had gone away during term time after missing the chance to get time off work during the school holidays for the fifth year running.
He said the family went away a week after the six-week summer holiday, missing the first week of term.
Mr Sutherland said: “We returned with the penalty notices - £60 per parent, per child - for taking the children on holiday. We got in touch with the council to explain the circumstances to explain why we took them out, got told it was the school’s decision. We got in touch with them and I was basically being bounced from pillar to post to be told there was no appeal process, the only time people would listen to me was if I went to court.
“£996 was my total fine in the end from the courts and I’ve also now got a criminal record for taking my kids on holiday.”
He added: “The legislation came in 21 days before I went on holiday, obviously I booked the holiday 12 months in advance. The last time I took the kids out, which was five years previous, I was informed about the 10-day waiver and as long as I kept within that time and their attendance was good for the rest of the year there wouldn’t be a problem with it.”
Kenny Frederick, from the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “You can’t have one rule for one and one rule for another. Frankly, I don’t think head teachers should be put in this position where you are expected to make a decision (on holidays).
“It’s not fair to put head teachers in that position - they have enough to do and enough responsibility.
“Parents have got to support the school, they have to be partners with the school.”
She added: “I don’t believe in fining parents anyway, it’s very negative.”