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Suffolk fines for unauthorised school absence creep up following coronavirus pandemic, FOI data reveals

The number of fines issued to parents and carers for children's unauthorised absence from school in Suffolk has been rising following a huge fall during the years of coronavirus lockdowns.

Data from the local education authority Suffolk County Council (SCC), which was provided to SuffolkNews following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, reveals 4,160 penalty notices, or fines, were handed out in the academic year 2019/20, but this dropped to 1,304 the following school year, which saw two Covid lockdowns in England. The number of fines then jumped to 4,279 in 2021/22.

Fines are issued following a referral from schools, which set their own attendance policies. A certain number of unauthorised absences during term-time, such as for holidays or being late, can lead to a referral being made.

Last year, SuffolkNews reported that a number of Suffolk schools had been contacting parents and carers to highlight attendance rules, while new Government guidance to improve attendance levels applied from September 2022.

Driving up school attendance has been a focus for the Department for Education (DfE) after, according to the department, the pandemic exacerbated some of the issues that resulted in pupils missing school avoidably.

Bec Jasper is the founder and co-director of the Suffolk support group Parents and Carers Together (Pact), which helps parents and carers with a child or young person with mental health issues.

Bec Jasper from Parents and Carers Together. Picture: Bec Jasper
Bec Jasper from Parents and Carers Together. Picture: Bec Jasper

She said parents continue to be concerned about fines and prosecution when absences were not deliberate, eg not term-time holidays.

She said: "We hear often from concerned parents and carers in Suffolk when absences relating to hidden illness and/or disabilities are not being authorised. This is despite the recent DfE guidance which requests schools not to ask for medical evidence unnecessarily."

She added: "Families require support if a child is struggling to attend rather than punitive measures as this can lead to further deterioration and longer absences."

Bec is also co-director of Define Fine CIC, a national organisation supporting parents and carers whose children are experiencing barriers to attending school.

A spokesperson for SCC said where the headteacher determines that the absences cannot be authorised, then it is for the school to decide the most suitable cause of action in line with their school's attendance policy.

They added: "Where the school identifies that there are significant barriers to attendance that requires additional support then a referral can be made into the attendance service.

"The service will then produce a plan alongside family, young person and school which considers different strategies to support the individual needs of the young person and their family."

Maria Kemble, executive head of St Edmund's Catholic Primary School in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Mark Westley
Maria Kemble, executive head of St Edmund's Catholic Primary School in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Mark Westley

Maria Kemble, executive head of St Edmund's Catholic Primary School in Bury St Edmunds and St Joseph's in Sudbury, said: "We have always taken a pragmatic approach to attendance and sought to work in partnership with parents. We also work closely with the local authority attendance officer who visits the school regularly to discuss and monitor attendance.

"We tend to use a system of support including a shared action plan first where we have concerns around attendance and have found that this can be successful especially when parents understand the impact it has on their child's academic, social and emotional wellbeing.

"We have issued fines for absence when there has been significant holiday taken over the five days that can be authorised in exceptional circumstances. We do still look at individual circumstances, for example, families connected to the military or frontline services like police, hospital and fire."

She added: "Since the pandemic, we have had to rebuild parental trust and make sure everyone feels safe in school. We want the children to attend as much as possible to get the most from the learning and experiences school has to offer."

School leader Maria Kemble
School leader Maria Kemble

The SCC website says the penalty for unauthorised school absence is £60 if paid within 21 days and £120 if paid between 21 and 28 days.

The response to SuffolkNews' FOI also revealed there were 239 cases of legal proceedings for the academic year 2021/22 where the penalty was not paid in full within 28 days. Of these, 188 prosecutions were successful.

In England, there were 218,200 penalty notices issued in the 2021/22 academic year for unauthorised absence, according to Government data, compared to 45,800 in 2020/21.

The majority of those for 2021/22, 85 per cent, were issued due to unauthorised family holidays and 0.6% were issued for being late.

Last summer, the DfE carried out consultation on proposals for national thresholds for absence to end what it describes as a 'postcode lottery' over when fines are issued.

  • See here for more information about the Pact support group.
  • See here for more information about Define Fine CIC.