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· 105 councils issued 114,165 fines to parents in the 15/16 school year

Essex and Suffolk most prolific in the region

· Lawyer slams some councils for scaremongering and misleading parents

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.

If a school notifies the local council that a child has had unauthorised absence, the council can issue the parents with a £60 fixed penalty notice which rises to £120 if it isn't paid within 21 days.

If all 114,165 fines issued by the 105 councils that responded to the request were paid within 21 days, it would amount to £6,849,900.

The data highlights significant regional differences, with the highest number of fines handed out by Suffolk, Lancashire, Bradford, Manchester, Hampshire and Essex each issuing more than 4,000 in the past year. At the other end of the table, Oxfordshire County Council issued just 69 fines.

Solicitor Julie Robertson from Simpson Millar specialises in helping families challenge unreasonable fines. She says: "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."

According to Simpson Millar's figures, the bottom 27 councils combined issued the same number of fines (5691) as Suffolk County Council issued on its own in the last school year (5668).

Julie comments: "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.
Misinforming parents of their rights

Julie is concerned about parents' lack of understanding when it comes to their rights to challenge Education Penalty Notices, and says they are often told wrongly that they have no right to appeal. Despite issuing 1883 Education Penalty Notices, Peterborough City Council said not a single parent had appealed. In contrast, Suffolk County Council withdrew 709 fines, Derbyshire County Council withdrew 343 fines, Manchester City Council withdrew 299 fines and Norfolk County Council withdrew 260. Bradford City Council said around 10% of its 4985 fines were later withdrawn. In total, 46 councils declared that they had withdrawn 4865 fines between them.

Julie says: "It is hugely worrying that parents are told by some councils that they have no statutory right of appeal when in fact they have a common law right to do just that. It is misleading and very concerning. I would even call it a breach of duty on behalf of certain authorities."

Numerous councils pointed out in their reply that there was no appeals process and that parents had no right to appeal.

Julie comments: "Parents naturally place a lot of trust in the authorities at their children's school; when they are told they have no right to appeal, they take it at face value and pay up."

Julie says the tone and language used on websites regarding the rules around Education Penalty Notices appears to deliberately frighten parents into paying the fines quickly.

"The threat of criminal proceedings and a possible conviction naturally makes parents pay up without question. It is a very effective tactic."

The Government's own website highlights that parents whose children are missing school without a good reason could be forced to take parenting classes.

Julie wants parents to be given clear and independent guidance about how they can challenge an Education Penalty Notice when it is issued.

She says: "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."

Julie says, for many of her clients, the issue is not about money: "Parents who ask for my help in challenging an Education Penalty Notice feel passionately that they made the right decision on behalf of their family and their children, or that they had no choice. They don't want it on record that they are bad parents, let alone to face criminal sanctions."

By way of an example, Wigan Council's website states that: "If you are taken to court, there are only four reasons that you can defend the charges against you. These are if your child:

· Is ill or couldn't go to school due to an emergency
· Lives over a certain distance and we haven't been able to help get them into a school nearer to you or help with transport
· Misses school due to religious reasons
· Has an authorised absence.

According to Julie, this is misleading. "It misses the point that if a parent is prosecuted, it is for the council to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a parent has not secured regular attendance. In other words, the list should also include reference to the child having had regular attendance at school."

In 2015/26, Poole Borough Council issued 328 fixed penalty notices for unauthorised absence; 318 of those were for unauthorised term-time family holidays.

With half term approaching, Julie is calling on schools and councils to take a more common sense approach to any term-time absence that may occur.

"Being on holiday, especially for those children for whom it is a rare occasion, is both educational and hugely valuable on a number of levels. It seems that, in some regions, rules are all that matter. I can only urge head teachers to consider requests for unauthorised absence seriously, and to issue fines in the context of each child's attendance record and circumstances."

Some councils provided figures for how many Education Penalty Notices were withdrawn either due to an appeal by the parents or because it was wrongly issued. Others simply stated that parents have no statutory right to appeal.

Note: Some councils stated that schools were still sending requests for fines to be issued for the 15/16 school year at the time when Simpson Millar's Freedom of Information request was made in August and September 2016. As such, the total figure may be revised up slightly.

 

For a full report of councils fines please click here