School Penalty Fines and Authorised Absence — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 4:30 pm, 11th July 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 129698 relating to school penalty fines and authorised absence from school.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and a privilege again to have the opportunity to debate this subject, which looks like it is simply not going to go away. It is evident that parents from all around the country feel strongly, which is why we get to debate it again. We are here as a result of the online petition titled, “No more school penalty fines and bring back the 10 day authorised absence”, which has received more than 200,000 signatures to date. I am sure that we are all clear on the background, but let me put on the record that the petition states:

“Back in 2013 the government changed the law on taking your children out of school in term time so that now you receive a penalty fine of £60 per child”,

which can increase if the fine is not paid within a certain time.

Before the change in the law, which was passed by way of a statutory instrument and without the impact assessments being considered, headteachers had the discretion to allow up to 10 days off for pupils in special circumstances. That approach was rooted in common sense: teachers know the pupils, know the families they come from and know the communities that they are a part of. Sadly, we now have a Big Brother blanket ban on all family holidays in term time that gives the message that the state knows better than parents what is right for their children.

As we know, the rule was turned on its head by a recent court ruling, which judged that it was unlawful to fine parents for taking their children out of school when their children are regularly attending school. Confusion now reigns. We recently heard from Devon County Council that, until the details of the new law are made clear, it has suspended issuing any new penalty notices and cases to be heard in court will be adjourned. Cornwall Council has apparently been accused of going soft on fining parents. Although I welcome the decisions that these two south-west councils have taken, for the sake of fairness and clarity, schools and parents across England need to know where they stand.

Mr Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union, the National Association of Headteachers, stated that, as we approach the holiday season, the recent ruling had

“created confusion for schools and parents” and that

“the system of fines is clearly too blunt an instrument and in many cases it drives a wedge between schools and families.”

Swift action is needed to clarify the position for families, schools and all concerned.

The Minister knows that I care deeply about this—we have discussed and debated it before—partly because of the negative effect on the people of my constituency in Cornwall. I have made that case and spoken about the impact on the tourist industry many times before. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, but I want to address what I believe are some of the key arguments and some of the points that parents up and down the country feel very strongly about. I believe that we need to return to a policy that brings back common sense and a degree of flexibility.

I believe that the policy devalues the place of the family. The Government do not know what is best for my or anyone else’s children. Every child is unique and every family is different. This one-size-fits-all blanket ban does not allow for the uniqueness of every child and every family. It is not the Government’s role to tell parents what is best for their children.