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Absence fines rake in £19m as schools, councils get strict

Councils raised more than £19 million in fines for absence last year as enforcement ramped back up in the wake of Covid and town halls adopted stricter policies to pre-empt government rule changes.

Penalties for unauthorised absence were stopped during periods of partial school closure but they reached record numbers last year as low attendance rates continue to blight education.

Damian Hinds

Analysis of freedom of information data suggests town halls took in £19 million in 2022-23, almost double the £9.7 million taken the previous year, and up 17.5 per cent on pre-pandemic 2018-19.

In one area, income was 55 times what it was before Covid, while another saw a six-fold increase. Of the 15 areas with the largest increases, 11 have above-average free school meals eligibility.

This week the government announced plans to raise fines by a third and standardise the system for allocating them.

Writing in Schools Week, minister Damian Hinds warned of a “postcode lottery, which sees parents in some areas getting fined for [unauthorised absence], while others are not”.

Changes to fines coming this September

Heads decide whether to fine parents, but the penalty notices are administered by local authorities.

Councils can currently only spend the money on administering fines and prosecutions, but from September will be able to spend them on attendance “support”.

Ministers this week published updated guidance on attendance that will become statutory from September. However, proposed changes have been announced over several years, prompting some town halls to change tack early.

Southend council raised £300 from absence fines in 2018-19. Last year, it raised over £50,000, an increase of 16,580 per cent.

Helen Boyd, cabinet member for children’s services, said they supported the government’s attendance campaign and were “challenging those parents taking children out of school for term-time holidays, and because of this we are now issuing more fines than we used to”.

The council in Plymouth introduced a new code of conduct in 2021 and started issuing notices for all unauthorised absence. Its income rose 462 per cent from £9,000 to £50,580.

“We are committed to working with families and schools to understand the underlying reasons for absences and to offer support when needed, prior to issuing a penalty notice,” the council said.

Councils pre-empt government changes

The new statutory guidance from September includes a requirement for schools to consider fines if five days – or 10 half-day “sessions” – are missed to unauthorised absence in any 10-week period.

Bolton council halved its own threshold from 10 to five days shortly before the pandemic. Its income increased by 136 per cent from £138,240 in 2018-19 to £326,115 last year.

Newcastle, which saw fines income increase 174 per cent from £21,243 to £58,191, said it had “invested early in additional capacity to implement the new attendance guidance”.

This resulted in “closer monitoring of pupil attendance and an additional focus on persistently absent and severely absent children”.

Last year, 89.3 per cent of the 398,796 fines issued were for unauthorised holidays.

A report from Public First last year found an “increased willingness among parents to take children on holiday during termtime”.

Darlington council, which saw a 127 per cent rise in income, said the cost of holidays had increased, “so we have seen a significant rise in families taking holidays and being willing to accept the fine instead of paying the cost of a holiday during the school holidays”.

Barnet saw its income rise by 666 per cent from £5,520 to £42,300. The council said its schools were “rightly using this sanction to ensure good attendance in accordance with DfE guidance”.

Some councils received less income last year than in 2018-19, however. Brent saw rits evenue fall by 21 per cent as “flexibility” in the wake of Covid continued. But it expects to see increases this year and next.

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