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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Peter Heaton-Jones Peter Heaton-Jones Conservative, North Devon 4:57 pm, 11th July 2016

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not know whether she saw my remarks in advance, but I was coming on to say that what I want is a world where we recognise that the best people to make decisions for children in individual cases are their parents and their headteacher. Those are the people who should be making such decisions, and they need the discretion to do so.

Now, however, everyone is confused by the vacuum created following the Isle of Wight court case. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay suggested, we need some certainty from the Minister—I am sure that he will be able to provide it—about the Government’s position on the court case, which has left people concerned. In particular, the fear among headteachers to whom I have spoken is that under the existing regulations, if they authorise absences from their school, they will be penalised when Ofsted comes and looks at their absence statistics. Headteachers are rightly worried about the implications of that for the rest of their school.

We need a clear indication from the Minister that when headteachers decide that they wish to authorise an absence in individual circumstances, Ofsted will not count it against the absence figures for their school as a whole. Headteachers need the certainty that if they feel it is right to make a particular decision in the case of a particular child, they can do so without being penalised from above.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned the situation in Devon. Due to the uncertainty brought on by the Isle of Wight case, Devon County Council has now suspended all actions against parents, some of whom have been summonsed to court or made a first appearance before magistrates. That is absolutely the right thing to do in the circumstances, but I am afraid it merely adds to the sense of confusion.

One case that hon. Members may have seen reported widely in the national media at about the same time as the Isle of Wight case was that of my constituents Edward and Hazel Short. Mr and Mrs Short have two daughters, Nicole and Lauren, aged 16 and 15 respectively. Nicole and Lauren have represented England at volleyball. They are budding national athletes. This piece of paper in front of me—which is from the Daily Mirror, just to prove that there is absolutely no political bias in my choice of media—describes Nicole and Lauren as

“being hailed as stars of the future.”

This is their story: Nicole and Lauren were invited on a three-week training session. Two of the weeks coincided with school term time, and six and a half days’ absence from school would have been required. Their headteacher decided that he was not in a position to authorise their absence, and a fixed penalty notice of £60 was issued. Mr and Mrs Short decided not to pay it, and the next thing they knew, Devon County Council summonsed them to appear in court. They appeared before north Devon magistrates. They still did not accept the fine, and said that they would fight their case all the way.

Devon County Council then summonsed Mr and Mrs Short further to appear in court this month. When the finding in the Isle of Wight case went against the Government, as my hon. Friend said, Devon County Council decided that Mr and Mrs Short’s case, and a number of others with which it was currently dealing in the same way, would be suspended and no further action would be taken.