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.