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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:53 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 5:53 pm, 11th July 2016

My hon. Friend raises a real, practical issue about having different term dates in different parts of the country. That is something that the local authority and academies have to take into account when they consider changing term dates to reflect an industry or tourist needs in a particular region. They will have to weigh up the comparative advantage of that inconvenience versus the convenience of the industry that supplies the jobs in that area. That is why the decision needs to be taken locally by people who know how to weigh up those advantages and challenges.

That happened, for example, in Landau Forte Academy in Derby, which has operated on a five-term year since 1992. Eight-week terms are followed by two-week breaks and a four-week summer holiday. The academy feels that a shorter summer holiday is particularly beneficial for pupils from low-income backgrounds, who might not otherwise receive any stimulating activities in the holidays. It takes into account the dates of other local schools to ensure there is always some overlap of holidays. For example, one of its two weeks in October is always half term for other Derby schools.

Bishop Bromscombe School in St Austell, for example, improved school attendance by moving to a two-week May and June half term that allows parents to holiday outside peak times—[Interruption.] I assume that that is the school that my hon. Friend was talking about. It has now reversed that decision. If I had been quicker, I would have omitted that paragraph from my response.[Laughter.] I could, I am sure, cite other examples from around the country of schools that have taken advantage of that freedom.

Our reforms have put teachers in charge of their classrooms and headteachers in charge of their schools. Many measures are available to improve school attendance. Only when all other strategies to improve attendance have failed should sanctions such as penalty notices or prosecution be used. Schools, local authorities and the police have been able to issue penalty notices for unauthorised school absence since September 2004. There were 151,000 penalty notices issued for unauthorised absence in the 2014-15 academic year, up 54% from the 98,000 issued in 2013-14, indicating a continuation of the upward trend since 2009-10. The increase in 2014-15 was greater than the yearly increases prior to 2012-13, but it is lower than the increase of 88% between 2012-13 and 2013-14.

I believe it is right that local authorities and schools are actively addressing pupil absence. The impact of that can be seen in the historical downward trend in the absence figures, which show that, since 2009-10, almost 200,000 fewer pupils are persistently absent.

Although the Government are disappointed with the High Court judgment on school attendance, we are clear that children’s attendance at school is non-negotiable, and we will take the necessary steps to secure that principle. I recognise that the High Court judgment has created uncertainty for parents, schools and local authorities. Given its importance, it is essential that the matter is clarified, which is why we decided to support Isle of Wight Council’s request for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, and why I wrote to all schools and local authorities in England to make it clear that the High Court judgment does not establish that a pupil’s attendance above 90% is regarded as regular attendance.

Headteachers are responsible for deciding whether there are exceptional circumstances that merit granting a pupil leave of absence. My letter concluded by explaining to local authorities receiving requests for refunds that the decision in the Isle of Wight case does not require them to refund penalties that have already been paid. The Department for Education expects applications for such refunds to be refused.