Fines for school absences have plummeted by 86 per cent since the pandemic hit, new figures show.
Official data revealing the stark decline comes as education secretary Nadhim Zahawi ramps up efforts to boost attendance, including urging councils to use penalty notices.
Department for Education data shows there were just 82 fines for lateness and eight parenting orders in 2020-21.
Meanwhile the number of penalty notices slumped to a nine-year low in the 2020-21 academic year, with only 45,809 fines for unauthorised absence.
However the report highlighted attendance during the year was “heavily disrupted by the pandemic, and for two months measures were disapplied when schools were not open to all pupils”.
As in previous years, the majority of notices were for unauthorised family holidays with 34,933 recorded.
No figures were collected in 2019-20, but the latest numbers show a dramatic reversal from 2018-19.
Parents and carers had received 333,388 notices that year – the highest in at least a decade. Of those, 288,239 were for unauthorised family holidays, highlighting the scale of cancelled trips since Covid struck.
Government statisticians note there had been a “general upward trend” in penalties prior to the pandemic. It followed tougher rules in 2013, making clear term-time leave could only be granted in exceptional circumstances, and parent Jon Platt losing a landmark legal battle with Isle of Wight council in 2017.
7 councils issue no notices
Penalty notices varied widely between councils, with 14 per cent of authorities accounting for more than half of fines issued. Fifteen councils issued 10 or fewer notices, including seven who issued none at all – Brent, City of London, Dorset, Gateshead, the Isles of Scilly, Kensington and Warrington.
Luton issued the most penalty notices, with 3.3 for every 100 pupils and a total of 1,174 fines in the year. Bolton, Doncaster, Blackburn with Darwen, Calderdale, Walsall and Bradford had the next highest rates.
Gateshead’s and Bradford’s contrasting approaches come in spite of both ranking highest for persistent secondary absence, according to analysis of official data by Datalab’s FFT Attendance Tracker shared with Schools Week.
The analysis showed 18 per cent of pupils missed a fifth of more of sessions earlier this term in both districts.
Slump in parenting orders and contracts
The DfE also released data on other “parental responsibility measures”. Fewer than 0.2 per cent of fines were for lateness in 2020-21, with 76 per cent down to unauthorised family trips.
The number of cases going through attendance case management, a form of early intervention to tackle absence, dropped from 82,100 pre-Covid, to 39,700 in 2020-21.
Meanwhile parenting orders over absence, issued by courts to require actions such as attending guidance or counselling sessions, also fell.
Just eight were issued, compared to 117 in 2018-19. Their use had already been dropping, down from 439 in 2010-11. But courts were also heavily disrupted by Covid.
Only 17 education supervision orders, which see councils appointed by court to temporarily supervise children’s education, were issued by just eight councils. Only 34 had been issued two years previously, however.
Parenting contracts, a voluntary agreement between parents and councils or governors, more than halved too. A total of 7,800 were offered, of which three-quarters were accepted by parents, compared to 18,300 in 2018-19.
Seven in ten authorities offered no parenting contracts in the last academic year.
The figures suggest the scale of the challenge facing Zahawi, who has declared attendance his “top priority” amid continued Covid disruption in schools.
A letter seen by Schools Week shows Zahawi has ordered councils to tell parents that keeping their children off school has “repercussions,” including fines, parenting contracts and education supervision orders.
Yet he faces demands from cash-strapped councils to fund the crackdown on the one hand, and threats of legal action and de-registration from parents worried about Covid on the other.