School term time absence, the High Court and Cornwall.

Following the recent High Court decision over penalty notices I wanted to share my views on the issue and explain the situation in Cornwall.

The recent High Court case between the Isle of Wight and Mr Platt centred on the issue of ‘reasonable attendance’ and whether the father had failed in his duty to ensure regular school attendance (under section 7 of Education Act 1996). As he was able to show that his daughter had a 93% attendance rate at the time the FPN was issued, with a 100% attendance rate before then, this was accepted by the court and the case was thrown out.

This judgement was supported by another case in Swindon, where the court ruled the parents had not failed in their duty, as their child had achieved regular attendance over a 6 month period. This was despite the fact that the child’s attendance level over the three-period used as the basis for the prosecution was 87%.

As I have said previously, Head teachers decide whether to issue a penalty notice – not the Council. Head teachers are also responsible for deciding on whether to authorise term time leave.

A FPN is only issued when certain criteria is met. The Council issues FPN on behalf of schools – this helps ensure that the criteria for issuing penalty notices is applied consistently and fairly across Cornwall.  It is also the Council which takes a case to court of parents fail to pay a fine.

We have historically taken a pragmatic approach to this issue. Where some local South West authorities have issued over 1600 fixed penalty notices since 2013 we have issued a total of 63 FPN.  11 of these were subsequently withdrawn.

During 2015/16, only 35 of the 51 notices issued were for so called “holiday absence”.  The increase followed a review of our Code of Conduct policy following a request by some schools which had experienced parents taking their child out of school in the summer term and then again in the autumn term.

Our previous Code of Conduct required at least 20 unauthorised absences (10 days) within one academic year, providing the parent has been warned within that year or had a prior offence. The new Code now requires 10 unauthorised session absences (5 days) within 100 sessions (10 weeks), but the warning / prior offence should be within a calendar year.

A key issue is that the courts base their judgement on the legislation, not on our Code of Conduct or on our definition of low attendance.  The Government talks about a 90% figure but this is not set in law. The courts have the final decision on what is classed as low attendance and, therefore, whether a parent has failed in their duty under Section 7.

Our Code of Conduct ensures that over a period of 100 sessions, a child would have attained only 90% or less attendance to meet the threshold for issuing a FPN. We also ask schools to submit attendance data for two terms prior to the offence, so we can be sure that the fixed penalty notice would not be issued against a parent whose child normally attends perfectly well.

We advise schools to treat such cases as first offences and to warn parents before taking the case to court. If we do go to court, we would provide evidence of up to 6 months of attendance to demonstrate failure in their duty over a longer period.

The Government says it is now going to change the law.  I see this as a knee-jerk reaction in a case where Mr Platt had proved in court that he had not failed in his duty under section 7.

We all know children should attend school. However, there are perfectly valid reasons as why to it might be in the best interest of the child to be granted leave in term time, which a head teacher can allow.

We have a fair and balanced policy in Cornwall and always try and work with parents before issuing penalty notices or going to court.  But we will use these options if we need to.

Cornwall Council is right with its policy on fines for school term time unauthorised absence

Yesterday, BBC Spotlight and BBC News Online ran a story about fines for unauthorised absence during school term time. One headline was Cornwall ‘has gone soft’ in how Cornwall Council deals with this issue. My reply to that is there are better ways of making children go to school, rather than using the sledge-hammer approach of fines. We in Cornwall are certainly not letting anyone get away with not attending school.

As I posted on Facebook, we have not gone soft in Cornwall, but unlike other local authorities, we take a more pragmatic view on how we deal with this subject. According to recent FOI’s, Devon has issued over 1600 fixed penalty notices (FPN) and Torbay near 1000 (998) FPN since 2013. The latter local authority has 39 (primary and secondary) schools. To be clear, I am not knocking other local authorities, as they are responsible for their own policies.

I will also be clear; a child should attend school as this will give that child the best education, which will be vital for life’s journey.

In Cornwall we have issued 16 FPN since 2013 (as of Dec 2015). For information, we have 272 schools. Why is Cornwall so different? My view, as the Cabinet Member who has the ultimate responsibility for the policy, is we want to work with head teachers and parents. It is about having a realistic view on the pressures for both parties.

Our policy allows the head teacher of a school the option of granting absence during term time for exceptional circumstances. As to what is exceptional circumstances is left to the head teacher as they know their children and the families. It would be completely wrong to have a one size fits all criteria for exceptional circumstances. If a head teacher wants to issue a fine, and the criteria for such action is met, then Cornwall Council will issue the fine on behalf of the school. We do this for all schools in Cornwall.

However, our policy also listens to head teachers on their concerns about unauthorised absences. They highlighted a concern about the number of unauthorised absence sessions. A review took place and it was felt appropriate to amend a part of the policy.

The old Code of Conduct required at least 20 unauthorised session absences (10 days) within one academic year, providing the parent has been warned within that year or had prior offence.

The new Code now states 10 unauthorised session absences (5 days) within 100 sessions (10 weeks), but the warning / prior offence should be within a calendar year. This allows schools to address cases where a parent may take the child out in the summer term and then again in the Autumn term.

If there is long-term absence, then the Council has other powers to address this. Our Education Welfare Officers (EWO) play a crucial part in understanding the reason behind why a child is no attending school. From this understanding the EWO work with families and schools to make sure that child attends. However, if that fails, then we as a local authority can and will take a parent(s) or guardian to Court.

Furthermore, and this is an important point, our overall absence for term-time holidays has fallen in Cornwall over the last few years as a proportion of all absences.

The figures are taken from, School Census (17/01/13) for Autumn 2012 and School Census (15/01/15) for Autumn 2014 (latest published figures)

Holidays taken in Primary

By % (2012) – 18.8%. Number of sessions missed 36,099

By % (2014) – 7.6%. Number of sessions missed 17,309

Holidays taken in secondary

(2012) – 10.5%. Number of sessions missed 14142

(2014) – 4.7%. Number of sessions missed 8326

These figures show that absences due to term-time holidays has fallen as a proportion of all absences, while we are also seeing a general fall in overall absences from schools in Cornwall.

The overall absences for Cornwall schools has remained low and below the national average for secondary schools and slightly above for primary schools. Taking all schools into account, the total percentage for the January 2015 census was 4%, while the national average has been above 5%.

Which sort of proves using a sledge-hammer approach by fining parents for unauthorised absence is flawed.

My view is rather than picking on parents, the Government should do something about the massive hikes for holidays during school holidays. These hikes make family holidays unaffordable for many. Though, the tourism industry will (and I am not disputing this) say they are struggling financially due to the changes, and therefore, they have no other option to increase prices during the school holiday period.

If you are interested, previous Blogs on this subject can be found HERE.

I also did an interview for the BBC programme (which the news bulletins was taken from) BBC Inside Out South West, which will be shown on Wednesday at 7:30pm.

 

 

School term-time non-attendance Penalty Notices

There has again been a lot of media interest on the subject of talking children away from school for holidays during term-time. The LGA has now also weighed into the Government by calling for rules to be changed to give heads greater flexibility to allow parents to take their children on holiday during term time.

It is very important for a child to attend school and therefore gain the education and skills they need throughout their lives. However, family time is an important part in any child development and the Government should not financially penalise parents for wanting this family time.

Since the rule change in 2013, many local authorities have issued hundreds and in some cases thousands of fixed penalty notices to parents for taking their children out of school. In Cornwall, we have taken a more pragmatic view on this issue and have tried to understand the position not only of parents and their children, but also of head-teachers who often feel frustrated when parents take their children out during school time.

This pragmatic view reflects the number of fines head teachers have authorised and been issued. The criterion for issuing a fine is for a child to miss ten or more unauthorised sessions from School (2 sessions per day). To date this is the total number of fines  Cornwall has issued.

  • 2014 academic year – no penalty notices issued
  • 2015 academic year – 9 penalty issues issued ( three withdrawn and remainder issued to 1 family)
  • 2016 academic year (so far) – 3 penalty notices issued (2 to one family) * Not all of these are for term-time holidays; some have been for other unauthorised absences.

From the fines issued, none have resulted in Court action. It is interesting to note of the recent Court case in the Isle of Wight. If this was in Cornwall, it is highly unlikely a fine would have been issued because of the child’s attendance record. 100% leading up to the event and 93% after.

Because of the effective work of schools and our Educational Welfare Service, attendance has improved in Cornwall without resulting to the need of fining parents. The statistics below – taken from the school census – show for ALL absences taken, the % of which is due to holidays:

Holidays taken for Primary aged children

  • By % (2012).  18.8% Number of sessions missed 36,099
  • By % (2014). 7.6%   Number of sessions missed 17,309

Secondary aged children:

  • (2012). 10.5%, Number of sessions missed 14142
  • (2014) 4.7%     Number of sessions missed 8326

Head-teachers in Cornwall can still grant leave of absence in term time if the reason is exceptional. Head-teachers are responsible for deciding what is considered to be exceptional. This means that the decision on whether to grant leave of absence in term-time rests with the Head-teacher of each school and not the Council.

Though, to make sure there is consistency on what is a breach and therefore, has the potential to be subject to a Penalty Notice, the Council has a policy which has been compiled in conjunction with Head-teachers.

If a school decides it wishes to issue a penalty notice or prosecute a parent for poor attendance of their child, they would then contact the Local Authority which conducts prosecutions and issues penalty notices on behalf of the schools. Schools are advised that they should look at each case individually, but issuing a Penalty Notices should be on a second offence and should take into account the child’s overall absence levels. We would expect the evidence presented by a school to show they have concerns over attendance and that a parent has been warned previously.

Long-term and frequent non-attendance can be and is dealt by other legislation, and has always been a course of action open to LEA’s.

Will the law change? I doubt it, as the Government has been quick to dismiss the view of the LGA and others on changing the current rules.

However, one of the key arguments used by parents is the huge increase in the cost of holidays during the six-week summer holiday period which leaves family holidays unaffordable to many families.

That reader is the elephant in the room, and I would like to see the Government take action to address this. I know myself when taking my son away the eye-watering changes in prices for the same holiday, just because it is in the six-week holiday period.

 

Issuing Fixed Penalty Notices for unauthorised absence in Cornwall’s Schools.

Since the Government change the legislation surrounding unauthorised absence during term time there has been a lot of stories in the media from local and national radio, to printed media on the subject of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPN). Therefore, I felt it was important to explain fact from fiction. Without making this blog post long, and repeating something please read ‘Unauthorised absence during the school term’ to refresh yourselves.

In another blog post on ‘The number of fines from unauthorised absence in Cornwall’s schools’ I give details on the actual number of Fixed Penalty Notices issued by Cornwall Council on behalf of  the Headteacher. To clarify, the decision on whether to grant leave of absence in term-time is always made by the Headteacher of each school. Head Teachers only grant leave of absence in term time if the reason is exceptional, with the individual Headteacher responsible for deciding what is considered to be exceptional.

If a pupil is absent during term-time without this being granted by the Head Teacher, then the school can request the Local Authority to consider issuing a Penalty Notice. Cornwall has a protocol for the issuing of Penalty Notices, agreed with schools, and is only issued under specific circumstances.

However, long-term truancy is a different matter and will not be covered via the FPN system. In cases like this, Education Welfare Officers  will get involved by work closely with schools, parents and pupils to try to sort out attendance issues. This may involve arranging home and school visits to discuss the situation. They will try to find out the reasons why the child is not attending school and take steps to try to get the child back into school.  This includes offering support or sign-posting to other agencies. Failing this, the Council will have to address truancy through the court system. This though is the last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

Has the introduction of the legislation worked? The answer to that depends on how it has affected you. For those in the tourism industry would say this change has had a devastating impact on their trade. The flip side of the coin is teachers say attendance has got better. As for parents, they may say holidays are unaffordable due to the massive hikes in prices during the school holidays.

There has been suggestions school holidays could be staggered. This sounds easy on paper, but trying to do this on a national scale is an almost impossible job, especially as academy schools have the right to set their own term and holiday periods. This makes it very difficult for Local Authorities to set fixed term times because schools can ignore it and so their own thing. For Blogs on this subject click School Term Times.

For those interested, more details on the policy can be found HERE

 

 

The number of fines from unauthorised absence in Cornwall’s schools

Following on from my previous post on unauthorised absence and the rules parents and carers can be issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice; I thought it would be good to inform you on the actual numbers of parents issued in Cornwall with a FPN and the total amount levied.

The number of parents and carers issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) is ZERO*. So if no fines, no levies.

  • Academic Year 2011/12 – 0
  • Academic Year 2012/13 – 1 (This notice was not paid and the parent was prosecuted in the magistrates court)
  • Academic Year 2013/14 – 0
  • The Council’s stance on this is it wants to work with schools and parents / carers to make sure children attend school so they get the education they deserve.

    *As correct 6th August.

    Unauthorised absence during the school term – debunking the myths

    You can tell we are heading to the school summer holidays, as the issue of taking children out of school during term time is currently de-rigueur. From listening to parents on this issue, I think there are many misunderstanding and popular myths that surround this issue. I hope this blog will clarify the Council’s position, the role of the school Headteacher, and the law.

    Let’s start with the law. Prior to September 2013, when the Government made amendments to The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006; a Headteacher was able to grant leave of absence for the purpose of a family holiday during term time in “special circumstances” of up to ten school days leave per year. This changed in Sept 2013 when the Government made amendments to the 2006 regulations and removed references to family holiday and extended leave as well as the statutory threshold of ten school days.

    A Headteacher can still grant absence in exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, it is also up to the Headteacher to determine the number of school days a child can be away from school if the leave is granted.

    One popular myth is on The Penalty Notice. The notice is not intended or treated as a ‘on the spot’ fine. In fact criteria has to be met before a notice can be issue. One of the criterion is: the level of absence that is necessary before a Penalty Notice can be issued in any circumstance is 20 or more half-day sessions i.e. the equivalent of 10 school days, of unauthorised absence during any 10 school week period. As laid out in point 3.1 of the Code of Conduct for issuing penalty notices in respect of unauthorised absence from schools. This criterion of issuing the notices has not changed, and is the same as pre-September 2013 when the amendments came into force.

    So who can issue the Penalty Notice? The agreement between the schools and the LA is the LA will issue the notice. This is of course once the Headteacher reports this to the LA and the issuing criteria has been met.

    A Penalty Notice can be issued as per section 5 of the Code of Conduct:

    • when a pupil has had 20 or more half-day sessions i.e. the equivalent of 10 school days ,of unauthorised absence during any 10 school week period. This includes term time holidays where the parent has been informed in advance that a Penalty Notice may result from such unauthorised absences.
    • when the circumstances of the pupil’s absence meets all the requirements and criteria in the Code of Conduct; and
    • when the issuing of a Penalty Notice does not conflict with other intervention strategies in place or other sanctions already being processed

    It should also be noted that when an Authorised Person is considering issuing a Penalty Notice they should bear in mind that the response to a first offence should be a formal warning rather than a Penalty Notice – as laid out in section 5.3 of the code.

    Cornwall has been compared to Devon and questions ask why Cornwall has not issued any Penalty Notices (yes zero) when Devon has issued over 800. The answer to that is each LA sets its own Code of Conduct. Other LA’s might take a more draconian stance, and fine quicker, but in Cornwall’s case, we like to take a more balance approach to the issue by working with head teacher’s, governors and parents.

    Whist there is still an unacceptable level of unauthorised absence in Cornwall’s schools; absence sessions in primary schools have reduced from 36,100 in 2012 to 23,100 in 2013. A similar pattern happened in secondary schools over the same period with overall absence has reduced from 14,100 to 10,300. These figures are for half-days and not full day’s absence. If you want to compare Cornwall nationally, then Cornwall is below the national average for unauthorised absence for in both primary and secondary schools.

    So we must be doing something right in Cornwall and the data shows that more children are now attending school in Cornwall without the need to unduly prosecute parents.

    Policy and more information can be found HERE

    Changes to regulations for absence during the school term

    A few weeks ago the Government announced changes to certain educational regulations for absence from school during the school term. This got quite a lot of media coverage which has resulted in the public and Councillors raising the issue with me. In light of these enquiries I thought it would be advantageous for me to explain the actual changes. Before I do, I should say Cornwall Council has no power over this.

    The Government has made changes to Penalty notices for truancy and exclusions. This has resulted in an amendment to The Education (penalty Notices) (England) Regulations 2007. The penalty time scales for payment have been reduced from a maximum 42 days to 28 days, and the penalty increased from £50 to £60 if paid within 21 days or £100 to £120 if paid by 28 days at the higher level.

    Furthermore, the Government has also amended the 2006 Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations with regard the Head teachers discretion of holidays/absence in term time. The length of absence is determined by the head teacher who should only grant leave of absence in term time if there are exceptional reasons. Previously, the regulations referred to head teachers being able to approve up to 10 days holiday in term time but that threshold has been removed and it is now up to heads how long they will agree and absence in term time.

    Hope that helps.