EDUCATION chiefs in Gwent will be able to hand out “punitive” fines to families of students who skip school from September. JOHN PHILLIPS takes an in-depth look at the merits of a controversial new policy which could also penalise parents who take their kids on holiday during term time.
WHEN the new academic year starts this autumn, families will face the prospect of receiving £60 fines if their children take unauthorised absence from school.
Local education authorities in South Wales have previously taken parents of pupils who play truant to court, leaving them with fines and legal costs.
But for the first time, an LEA in Gwent will be in a position to hand out fines to families without having to resort to court proceedings.
The penalties could help schools to identify persistent non-attendance issues within families without going so far as taking them to court.
Torfaen council, which endorsed the new fines’ policy this month, stressed the fines could provide an early intervention against unauthorised absence while cutting back on lengthy and costly legal proceedings.
LEAs will only be able to issue one fine per child over the course of an academic year and will not make any money out of them, as cash raised from these penalties can only be used to cover administration costs with the balance to be passed on to Welsh Government.
Yet, the policy has sparked fury from parents, some of who feel the penalties are unfair.
These non-attendance fines will be issued to cover three basic scenarios: holiday absences, truancy and any other unauthorised absence from school.
It was the holiday element which appeared to hit a raw nerve with parents.
More than 100 readers posted comments on our website as we carried stories about the new policy.
As families prepared for the big summer getaway, some questioned why they could not take their children out of school to go on holiday without the prospect of incurring a fine.
Parents stressed they may not always be able to book time off work when their children are off school.
In the past, parents had been able to take their children on holiday during term time with the authorisation of the school. But this new policy makes it likely they will receive fines.
As Torfaen council discussed the non-attendance fines this month, its interim head of education services, Dermot McChrystal, made it clear the local authority did not authorise holidays during term time.
But some parents reacted badly to the news, vowing to flout the new regulations and pay £60 fines rather than stump up hundreds more on their holiday packages.
One disgruntled reader said: “As a parent I will happily pay a £60 fine if it means saving £500 by going on holiday during term time.”
Another parent, Terry Banfield, branded the new policy “totalitarian”.
The Independent Living Fund support worker stressed he had been allowed to take his five-year-old daughter Kitty on holiday to go the Lake District only this spring.
Mr Banfield, 60, of Cardigan Crescent, Croesyceiliog, said: “I think it is totally deplorable.
“They are hinting, they are suggesting that parents don’t educate their children.
“If you take children out of school for a week, it doesn’t mean they’re not being educated.
“You can get education in the home, as well as at school. Most parents do that.
“It’s totalitarian. There is no way I’m going to pay a £60 fine. It’s ridiculous.
“This year in May, we went on holiday to the Lake District. I had the school’s permission.
“My daughter read books and had a great time and learnt about the Lake District.
“It was educational. Most holidays are.
“That’s what education is all about – discovering the world, experiencing different environments.
“You don’t just learn the three Rs. You have got to go with the flow.
“It is saying to parents they can’t educate their children, it’s saying children can’t learn through play.”
Torfaen council was at pains to stress the policy was imposed to comply with new government legislation, known as the Education (Penalty Notices) (Wales) Regulations 2013.
Nonetheless the local authority carried out a consultation exercise with schools, their governing bodies and even the police before voting to enforce the policy.
Results from the consultation found that schools would need support to ensure that attendance policies were appropriately enforced and Torfaen council should do as much as possible to support families with complex problems, including poor attendance.
One head recently named as the inspirational primary head teacher of the year indicated that issuing fines to parents who may not be able to afford them in the first place may not be the best approach.
John Healy, the head teacher of St David’s RC Primary in Cwmbran, said: “I am not in favour of it.
“There are other ways to encourage pupils to go to school. This is punishing their parents.
“This is counter-productive because they won’t be able to pay.
“The best solution is to have school nurture groups.
“There is one that is really, really successful in Duffryn. They focus on getting children into school.
“Fines are too punitive. You have got to improve the quality of the provision for the pupils who are not attending, in other words meet their needs.”
Education bosses will consider issuing fines when students lose at least 10 sessions or five school days without authorisation.
The new charges will rise to £120 if they are not paid within four weeks and parents who refuse to pay after that time could then end up in court.
Parents will be able to complain to the Education Welfare Service or opt to face proceedings in magistrates’ courts.
Four LEAs in Gwent will formally introduce the fines’ policy this autumn.
However, Blaenau Gwent launched one element of this policy early, the so-called holiday fines, back in September 2013.
The LEA phased out the old rules which allowed parents to take their children on holiday during term time with the authorisation of their school.
But a year on, it is difficult to assess what impact the policy had, as Blaenau Gwent did not issue a single holiday fine to parents.
It could take months before LEAs can determine if the fines have had any impact on pupil attendances.
But two of the five LEAs in Gwent believe their introduction will be positive and help raise standards.
In an official statement, a Blaenau Gwent council spokesman said: “Regular attendance is important, not just because the law requires it, but also because it is the best way of ensuring children get the most out of school.”
Meanwhile, Torfaen’s executive member for children and young people, Cllr David Yeowell, said: “Attendance in school is essential to improve children’s educational prospects and it reduces the risk of absence leading to criminal or anti-social behaviour.
“Fixed penalty notices are just one of the sanctions available for poor attendance and offer an effective intervention for improving levels of unauthorised absence before it becomes entrenched and persistent, while reducing the need for lengthy and costly prosecutions.
“Fines are punitive by nature and this will cause financial difficulty for some, but parents can avoid that difficulty by working with the council to address issues early and by ensuring their children attend school regularly.”