The number of parents issued with penalties because of their children missing school has soared to record levels in England, after councils were emboldened by a supreme court ruling in their favour.
Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) for 2017-18 show that local authorities issued 260,000 penalty notices to parents for unauthorised absences during the state school year, an increase of 110,000 compared with the previous year.
Some 223,000 penalties were issued because of unauthorised holidays alone, with the number spiking sharply upwards after April 2017, when the supreme court upheld a fine issued by Isle of Wight local authority following a two-year legal battle.
An Isle of Wight parent, Jon Platt, had challenged a £60 fine issued by his council after he took his daughter to Florida for a week in 2015 without the school’s approval. Platt initially won his cases in magistrates court and the high court. But the DfE and the council appealed, and Platt’s legal action ended with the supreme court’s unanimous decision in favour of the council’s action.
The ongoing legal uncertainty appears to have temporarily checked the rise in fines handed out by local authorities, which had been increasing since the DfE tightened regulations around unauthorised holidays five years ago.
Previously, families were often allowed to take up to two weeks as an authorised holiday in term time, provided their children had a good attendance record. But since September 2013 headteachers have been told they can only authorise term-time absences in “exceptional” circumstances such as funerals.
The DfE said it contacted six local authorities with large increases in penalties issued to explain the change.
“All six that responded cited that the supreme court judgment in this case had an effect on the number of penalty notices issued in 2017-18, either as a result of returning to pre-court case levels following a slowdown or from a change in behaviour as a result of the ruling,” the DfE reported.
Lancashire, Bradford, Hampshire and Essex councils each issued more than 6,600 penalty notices to parents for unauthorised holidays during 2017-18, with Essex issuing a total of 8,900 for all forms of absence.
Anntoinette Bramble, the chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said that parents and carers had a legal responsibility to ensure that children attended school regularly.
“If required, councils will support headteachers to take any action they feel necessary to address any issues with pupil attendance, including fining parents for unauthorised absences,” Bramble said.
Despite the rapid increase in fines, the rate of both authorised and unauthorised absences for family holidays remained unchanged at just 0.5% of all attendance, of which only 0.1% were unauthorised.
The DfE’s figures also showed that the rate of all unauthorised absences from schools rose from 1.3% to 1.4% of pupils last year, the highest level since records began and comes at a time of concern about children’s involvement in gangs and knife crime.
“The education secretary has made clear, persistent absence from school is a society-wide challenge that we all need to work together to resolve – and while significant progress has been made, today’s data shows that has now plateaued,” a DfE spokesperson said.
“High-quality education and pastoral care will make a real difference to children’s life chances, and that’s particularly important for those who are most vulnerable, but clearly key initiatives will only work if children are present.”
Persistent absence – children missing at least one day a fortnight during term time – accounted for just over a third of all absences in England, with one in nine children classed as persistently absent.