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Kent issues high number of fines to parents over pupil absence

More fines were issued to Kent parents after their children missed school last year than almost anywhere else in England, figures reveal.

Fines for school absences dropped significantly across England during the coronavirus pandemic – which the National Association of Headteachers described as unsurprising, as the crisis "fundamentally changed" the education landscape.

Children learn best from face to face education
Children learn best from face to face education

Department for Education data shows that 1,266 penalty notices were issued to Kent parents for a child’s poor attendance in 2020-21 – though measures did not apply for two months when schools were not open to all pupils.

Though no figures were available for 2019-20 because of the pandemic, the number of fines last year was down 86% from 8,923 in 2018-19 – and at their lowest level on since comparable records began in 2009-10.

The county issued more fines than almost any other local authority in the country – accounting for 3% of all penalty notices handed out across England.

Of the fines last year, 1,025 (81%) were for unauthorised family holidays, while three were for being late.

In Medway 431 penalty notices were handed out in 2020-21 - 362 for unauthorised holidays but none for lateness.

Across England, the number of notices issued fell from 333,400 to just 45,800 over this period – a fall of 86%, and the lowest number since 2011-12.

James Bowen, director of NAHT
James Bowen, director of NAHT

Their use varied greatly in different parts of the country, with 15 local authorities issuing 10 or fewer.

Meanwhile, just a dozen areas were responsible for over a third of all fines nationally last year.

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Fines have always been a blunt instrument when it comes to managing persistent absenteeism, and even more so if the reasons are related to the pandemic.

"Schools will be working closely with families where persistent absenteeism is an issue to provide the necessary support to help get pupils back into school.

"The reality is that if a parent is concerned enough about their child’s safety to keep them off school, the threat of a fine is unlikely to change their minds.”

Julie McCulloch
Julie McCulloch

Penalty notices are £60 if paid within 21 days of being issued, but rise to £120 if paid between 22 and 28 days.

If the penalty is still outstanding, the council must either prosecute for the original offence or withdraw the notice.

There were almost 5,000 prosecutions for non-payment nationally last year – 152 in Kent and 67 in Medway.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s important that all children are in school during term time, particularly as most will have missed out on extended periods of face-to-face education over the last two years, and many continue to face ongoing disruption as a result of Covid.

“Head teachers have discretion over whether to classify an absence as authorised or unauthorised, and local authorities over whether to issue penalty notices.

She said: "All involved will be mindful of the difficult circumstances of the last two years when making those decisions.”

A DfE spokeswoman said fines are available to local authorities when there is no lawful reason for a child's absence, but other support to boost attendance can also be offered where appropriate.

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