Truants’ parents face benefits fine

Parents of truanting children are to be fined from their child benefit under new measures to increase school attendance announced today.

Charlie Taylor, the coalition's expert adviser on behaviour, proposes hiking the fine from £50 to £60 – and then doubling it to £120 if payment is not received within 28 days – to improve the current system.

There are currently 54 million school days lost every year, with over 400,000 pupils missing the equivalent of at least a month off school.

New Labour ministers introduced fines for truanting parents in 2004, but officials say the way they operate is muddled.

The penalty notice is currently withdrawn after 42 days and local authorities are then required to prosecute parents. Around one-third of those prosecuted and found guilty did not receive a fine or sanction, according to the Department for Education (DfE).

"We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine," Mr Taylor said.

"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, along with other changes to the overall system, will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give headteachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part."

Parents who do not receive child benefit would have the money recovered through the county courts, it is proposed.

Headteachers are responsible for deciding when a fine should be imposed. Mr Taylor backs giving them discretion over how much term-time holiday is acceptable, but believes regulations should be strengthened to ensure schools only give permission in 'exceptional circumstances'.

The Taylor review also recommends calling on Ofsted to set specific timed targets for schools with especially low levels of attendance.

He wants more steps to be taken to address the problem in primary school, as this is where truancy habits develop.

"The earlier schools address poor attendance patterns, the less likely it is that they will become a long term issue," he added.

"The best primary schools realise this and take a rigorous approach to poor attendance from the very start of school life."

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said it remained the right thing to fine the parents of persistent truants – but that ensuring truancy is tackled early is even more important.

"Schools need to be places children want to attend with engaging teaching and a relevant curriculum," he commented.

"The government is also cutting back on education welfare officers who can identify truancy early.

"We need to look at the schools who have addressed this such as Barlow Hall Primary in Manchester and secondaries like the City Academy Norwich and see how we can learn from their success."

The National Association of Head Teachers spoke out against the continued use of fines, however.

General secretary Russell Hobby said: "Effectively you're fining the child and their brothers and sisters not the real offender. Better to work with the families to overcome the reasons.

"The real culprit is our holiday arrangements which make the price levels between term-time and holidays so extreme."

Only three per cent of pupils who miss over half of school get five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. That compares to 73% of those who miss less than five per cent of school, the DfE said.

The coalition's commitment to giving headteachers more freedom was reflected in new rules published on Friday.

Excluded pupils had been able to return to school against the wishes of their headteacher. Now heads can insist on the permanent exclusion of a pupil where that decision is 'legal, reasonable and fair'.