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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:17 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Labour, Nottingham South 5:17 pm, 11th July 2016

I shall make just a couple of brief remarks. First, I should say that I have not been contacted by individual parents wanting to express concerns, although I note that hundreds of them have signed the petition. I have a great deal of sympathy with parents, particularly those on low incomes, who want to give their children the opportunity to go on holiday and cannot afford to do so during peak periods when, as has been stated, the costs of some holidays are exceptionally high. I have, though, been contacted by the portfolio holder for schools at Nottingham City Council, and I have discussed the matter with a headteacher at one of my local schools. It is important to bring their representations to the Minister, even though I fear that many of my constituents will not thank me for doing so.

I understand that good attendance is vital to good educational attainment, which Nottingham City Council has been working hard to improve. The Minister will be aware that our city needs to make improvements and is very committed to doing so. The local authority has been working very hard to improve school attendance, which has involved fining parents for unauthorised absences when they take their children out of school without permission. I know that many parents will see that as very harsh and as a large stick; I myself do not like the idea that parents face fines. However, I understand the need to encourage parents to realise that getting their children to school on a regular basis, so that they do not miss time in the classroom, is exceedingly important.

The judgment in the Isle of Wight case has created huge uncertainty. Perhaps the most important issue for local authorities and headteachers is to have a degree of certainty and I hope that the Minister can tell us what he intends to do to provide it.

Sam Webster, who is the portfolio holder for education, employment and skills at Nottingham City Council and therefore responsible for schools, has said that it is

“worth noting that 90% attendance”— which is the attendance rate in some of our schools—

“is not good and is the equivalent of a child having a day off every 2 weeks.”

I think that those of us who are parents appreciate that if our child had a day off school every two weeks, that would have an impact on their educational attainment, no matter how valuable the experience that they may be having in their time off school.

Last year, Nottingham City Council was the most improved local authority in terms of school attendance and I hope that the Minister welcomes that. However, the current uncertainty could see the good progress that has been made being lost. Councillor Webster’s call is

“for Government to act urgently to give greater clarity and ideally bring forward a change to the wording of the legislation.”

I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will respond to that concern, which has been raised by the portfolio holder responsible for schools in Nottingham.

The second point I will make was initially made to me by Giles Civil, the headteacher at Highbank Primary and Nursery School in Clifton, which is in my constituency. Giles has been the headteacher there for a couple of years now. It is a challenging school, which did not have great standards before his arrival and consequently progress has been challenging. Nevertheless, the school, which has fewer than 300 pupils, has managed to raise pupil attendance from 92%, the rate when Giles arrived there two years ago, to 94.8% last year. Obviously, there is still significant room for progress. Giles said to me that

“A school year is 190 days”,

but he also pointed out that for his school:

“total unauthorised absence for this year…is 939 days.”

As he explained, that is the equivalent of “4.9 school years.”

Giles feels that it is a real slog to raise achievement and that school attendance is absolutely vital. However, he also feels that the change has taken away his stick, if you like, and that it is important there is clarity on this issue, because he wants to raise attendance at his school and he is working in a number of ways to do so. Therefore, it is necessary to get some clarity from the Government.

As I say, I do not like the idea that parents are being fined, and the opportunity to take children away on holiday is really vital. I hope that the Government can consider how they can make holidays more affordable for parents and I also hope that the holiday industry will listen, as Peter Heaton-Jones said, and consider the impact that the current situation is having. Nevertheless, attendance is important and headteachers and local education authorities obviously need to be given clarity and some power or some guidance that allows them to improve attendance, as the current situation has created unnecessary uncertainty.