Are Fines The Best Way To Improve Attendance in Schools?

Truancy fines should be deducted from child benefit, says behaviour adviser

Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour advisor has advocated deducting fines for truancy from families’ child benefit payments. The suggestion forms part of a package of proposals published on 16th April 2012 designed to reduce schools’ truancy levels. The proposals also include increasing the current fines levied to £60 or £120 if they aren’t paid within 28 days. Unpaid fines would be recovered from child benefit. For families not in receipt of child benefit the outstanding sum would be recovered through the county courts. Taylor’s review will also recommend a clampdown on term-time holidays and Ofsted based time targets for reducing truancy in schools where there are exceptionally high levels of absenteeism. As part of his announcement Charlie Taylor will say:

“We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine. It means the penalty has no effect and children continue to lose vital days of education they can never recover. Recouping the fines through child benefit … will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give headteachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part.”

The review is partially based on a report of the effectiveness of fines which included a survey of schools and local authorities. 79% of LAs said that penalty notices were either “very successful” or “fairly successful” in improving school attendance. But schools believed that court action was a long winded process that didn’t achieve much.  Fines for school absences were introduced by the last Labour administration in 2004 and since then 127,000 penalty notices have been issued including 32,600 last year. Of these approximately half have been unpaid or withdrawn. Under the current system penalty notices have to be withdrawn by LAs if they are unpaid after 42 days.

Are Fines The Best Way To Improve Attendance in Schools?

At first glance it would appear to be a simple, common sense response to the issue of non-payment of fines.  In theory it would seem to be a straightforward method of ensuring that unpaid penalties are received.  But, we believe that there is more to this than meets the eye.  Firstly, if 50% of the fines aren’t paid one must consider the reasons behind this high failure rate of the penalty notice. Is it because the families concerned cannot afford to pay the penalties or is it because they are refusing to pay out of a lack of respect for authority? A comparison of the percentage of penalties paid with the response of the LAs on improvement in attendance rates would suggest that in many cases the serving of the fine is enough to encourage increased attendance even if the fine is not actually paid.  It doesn’t take too much analysis to realise that this would be due to the majority of families involved being unable to afford the fines. In these cases therefore, to actually impose the fine would only create further hardship for families who are already at the lower end of the income scale.  This is not to say that a small minority of parents are just abusing the system and more stringent measures are required in those situations.

Furthermore, the proposed measures would also penalise parents wishing to take their children out of school for term-time holidays.  According to an article in the Guardian on 12th February 2012 approximately 4.5m school days are missed due to term-time holidays. In that piece the main reason given for this is the lower cost of out of season holidays. Additionally, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders points out that the 10 days afforded to some families are discretionary and not an actual right but have come to be seen as a cultural expectation.  But even in this area of absenteeism there are at least two types of family involved and matters are not black and white: there are those who cannot afford holidays during the school break and there are families who need to work during the holidays. Some of Kip McGrath Scunthorpe’s parents run businesses that require them to work during the Summer and taking a holiday during July and August would cost them a high proportion of their annual income. At least one school head was unwilling to accept this viewpoint and pressed ahead with fining the parents.

The reality, is that the system does not meet the requirements of 21st Century families. Many parents are unable to afford holidays if they are not taken during term-time and the proposals will do nothing more than penalise hardworking parents for trying to spend quality time with their children by providing them with a family holiday.  If a child is removed from school for a term-time holiday of 10 days every year for their school career up to Year 11 they will miss approximately 5% of their schooling; a figure which falls well below the DfE’s own level of 15% absenteeism as being persistent truanting and a cause for concern. In an ideal world every child would have a 100% attendance record but that is simply not a realistic expectation.  So are we going to fine parents who choose to remove their children for limited periods with positive motivations?

What Is The Solution?

This country is home to a wide variety of families from wide-ranging socio-economic backgrounds and schools seek to educate children with a whole host of educational, emotional and physical needs.  Every family is different to the next one. Therefore, to use a one size fits all approach is narrow minded and misguided.

  • With regard to term-time holidays each family’s circumstances must be taken into account regardless of the school’s overall attendance rates. If a child is meeting their educational targets and their attendance is generally very good there should be no reason to refuse the parents’ request for a term-time absence.  If however, the child’s attendance is poor and they are already behind in their education then it isn’t reasonable for the parents to try to remove them during term-time for a holiday. In these cases it might be possible to look at imposing a compulsory, Summer catch up programme for the student to complete at the parent’s expense through a local tuition centre. At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we run a successful Summer School every August to help prevent children from falling behind during the long Summer holidays.  Rather than levying a fine which probably won’t be paid and does nothing to benefit the child’s education even if is, there will be an educational gain and the parent may feel more motivated to accept the penalty because they will see a postive outcome for their child.
  • General absenteeism is not so easy to solve and each family’s case must be considered on it’s merits. For example, if a parent drops a child off at school on their way to work and the child fails to attend without the parent’s knowledge is it fair to penalise the parent? Any responsibility should fall on the school if they allow the child to leave the premises during the school day or the child if they fail to attend without the parent’s knowledge. Investigations would need to be made to find out why the child is playing truant. If a parent is failing to send their child to school then support mechanisms must be put in place if there are valid reasons why they are unable to cope. An article in the Guardian on 3rd April 2012 on kinder ways to tackle truancy highlighted the work of School Home Support, a charity that provides support workers in schools whose job is to identify children with low attendance and provide support for them and their families.

This does not mean that some kind of financial penalty would never be appropriate but there are too many reasons for absenteesim and too many children who are absent because of unmet needs. Arbitrary fines will simply further disenfranchise those who already mistrust authority, unnecessarily penalise hard-working families who want to spend quality time with their children and drive a percentage of deprived families deeper into poverty when it may well be the effects of poverty that is causing the low attendance in the first place. Taking things all round we would recommend a more creative and flexible approach that shows compassion for the less well off and meets the needs of modern families.

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