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

Again the hon. Lady makes a good point, and one that I have come across as I have tried to follow the chain of responsibility. I have met with headteachers, Ofsted and local authority leaders, and there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible—it is a vicious circle. Sadly, that comes down to the ruling and the situation with the Department for Education, which made the blanket ban, and that is the very point that I am challenging.

The policy undermines the place of family and devalues the importance of family holidays in any child’s upbringing. The policy does not enjoy broad support: parents hate it; many headteachers I talk to dislike it hugely and want it to be changed; and even the Local Government Association does not support it. David Simmonds from the LGA said:

“The increase in fines reflected tighter enforcement by schools that are under pressure from Ofsted to meet attendance targets, as well as a rising school population”.

He called for more flexibility in the rules to allow heads to take account of family circumstances where absence is unavoidable. He said that heads

“should be trusted to make decisions about a child’s absence from school without being forced to issue fines and start prosecutions in situations where they believe the absence is reasonable.”

That is a common-sense approach.

I am sure that we all want a good education for all children in this country, but that is not what we are debating. The Government are trying to reduce truancy, which is a persistent problem for a very small number of students, but this blanket approach is not the way to achieve that; it is a blunt instrument hitting the wrong people. There is a big difference between truancy and parents who simply want to be able to spend a holiday with their children. It should be noted that children who are persistently absent are less likely than other children to go on a family holiday. Before the regulations were introduced, authorised family holidays accounted for 7.5% of all absences from primary schools, dropping to 2.5% of all absences from secondary schools, but absence for family holidays was lower, at 1.9%, for persistently absent pupils, compared with 8.2% for other pupils. The policy is focusing on the wrong families; it is hitting the wrong people.