It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. Many Members have spoken in this important and relevant debate, which, as Peter Heaton-Jones said, has revealed that the Government have got it all in a bit of a mess. Nearly 200,000 signatures on the petition is not to be sniffed at, and those concerns deserve to be heard, and heard they have been in the many contributions Members have made.
The current situation is confused and confusing, as Steve Double outlined in his opening remarks. The only thing that is clear is that the Government acted with the best of intentions in 2013 when they changed the legislation. As their answer to the online petition reveals, they did so to try and correct the
“widespread misconception that parents were entitled to take their children on holiday during term-time.”
The Government argue that such a misconception had taken hold because headteachers had previously been allowed to grant up to 10 days’ leave for special circumstances.
The Government decided to come down hard. The result, as their response to the petition illustrates, has been fairly decisive: the number of persistent absentees is down by up to 40%; 6 million fewer school days have been lost; and pupils are missing fewer days at school today than they did in 2010 and are therefore receiving less interruption to their education. There are other results: £5.6 million was paid out by the public in fines last year, which was a 267% increase; 90,000 parents have been fined; and a High Court case has been lost, with possible Supreme Court hearings looming. Parents have no real certainty on where they stand. No wonder there is confusion, but let me make it clear that the Opposition support the Government’s attitude to school attendance. All the evidence shows that regular attendance at school helps ensure our children reach their full potential and can make their way in the world as adults. Indeed, education is the only available path out of the poverty and low aspiration that affects too many of our young people these days.
The hon. Member for North Devon made it absolutely clear that he is seeking to be helpful and that parents, teachers and heads across the country have expressed real concerns. As he stated—I agree with him—we need common sense and clarity, especially around the reaction of Ofsted. I hope the Minister will clarify that important point in his response. Despite the hon. Member for North Devon being an old-fashioned Tory guy, I am pleased and reassured that the Conservatives have clarified that they do not intend to go back to Dickensian times and stick kids up chimneys.
My hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood made some excellent points on how good education is vital for good attainment. She reminded us of the huge effort made by Nottingham City Council and many councils up and down the country to ensure that we have high attendance. They are worried that all their hard work could be lost without urgent clarity from the Government regarding the recent case.
Mr Turner expressed concerns about a case in his constituency and made a point on what “regular attendance” means. I hope Mr Platt’s daughter has had a good sports day and that she may represent us in the Olympics in the future.
School brings consistency and routine. Every day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of developing as well as their classmates, of passing their exams and of gaining good qualifications with which to build their young lives. Seven million parents know the benefits of regular attendance. After all, schools are in session for just 190 out of 365 days a year.