Lancashire tops chart for issuing fines to parents if kids miss school
Lancashire County Council is among the local authorities topping the chart for the number of fines it has issued to parents whose children fail to attend school.
Figures obtained by law firm Simpson Millar through a freedom of information request have revealed that more than 114,000 fines were issued to parents in the 2015/2016 school year for unauthorised absence.
North West councils issued the most fines – 22,687 – of which Lancashire County Council issued 5,654, amounting to £339,240 if they were paid within 21 days.
Lancashire joins Suffolk and Bradford councils in issuing the most fines.
At the other end of the table, Oxfordshire County Council issued just 69 fines.
Solicitor Julie Robertson from Simpson Millar, who specialises in helping families challenge unreasonable fines, said: “These figures are quite frankly staggering. Even though some cities clearly have more school children on their books than others, it seems that certain areas are particularly prolific when it comes to handing out fines for unauthorised absence.
“What one head teacher agrees are special circumstances, another doesn’t. It is a postcode lottery. We need more consistency and, in some areas, more common sense.
“Clearly, some schools are using their discretion appropriately where the parents are sensible in their choices and decisions.
“Others seem to be rather abundant in slapping parents with a fine regardless of the circumstances.
“You have to wonder why, for example, almost twice as many fines were issued in the north west compared with London.”
Education Penalty Notices were introduced by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 in a bid to help curb unauthorised absence for children of school age.
But the law has increasingly outraged parents who have been fined for taking children with a good attendance record out of school for a specific reason.
Julie wants parents to be given clear and independent guidance about how they can challenge an Education Penalty Notice when it is issued.
She said: “The court is our safeguard to ensure that rules are being applied fairly, and more parents need to take advantage of that opportunity. “To do that they need to understand how they can challenge an Education Penalty Notice.
“In court, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not the parents. The prosecution has to prove that the parent did not secure regular attendance and, in my experience, they often can’t.
“In fact, these cases are regularly thrown out of court at half time.
“Any parent who feels they have wrongly been issued with an Education Penalty Notice should seek legal advice within the first 21 days.”
County Coun Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “Lancashire has more schools than any other local authority so we are always likely to appear high up in lists like this.
“Making sure that all young people receive a good education is one of my highest priorities and the evidence shows that attainment is linked to attendance. If children miss out on school they miss out on learning.
“The decision to authorise absence or not rests with the headteacher of the particular school and penalty notices are an enforcement option available to local authorities, if requested by schools. In line with stricter government guidelines, headteachers are now only able to authorise absence in exceptional circumstances.
“Although each request is taken on its merits, the starting point is always that term time is for education.
“We encourage schools to work closely with parents to reduce unauthorised absences. Our aim throughout is not to punish parents but to ensure that children and young people attend school and receive a good education.
“Government legislation is very clear on how money raised from the payment of fines can be used. Local authorities can only use it to pay for the administration of the penalty notice scheme, and the cost of any further action needed if a penalty notice isn’t paid.
“A local authority is not allowed to profit from this scheme, and any extra money must go to the Secretary of State.”