According to The Times this week, Lancashire County Council is trying to raise the level of fines levied on parents who take their children out of school during term-time to a massive £1,000. But it appears that the council (which holds the record for fining parents) might be breaking the law: 2013 legislation set a maximum of £120. Ironically, that figure represents a fraction of the money families can save by taking holidays in term time, and avoiding peak-period prices.
Predictable comments emerged from Lancashire and, indeed, from the Department for Education. The former is considering “any possible action that could be taken to reduce unauthorised absences”. Meanwhile, the DfE claims it has “put schools back in control by supporting them – and local authorities – to use their powers”.
Hmm. The fact remains that, despite parents in England and Wales being fined a total of £24 million in the past three years, unauthorised absence in England is apparently at its highest since records began. One in six students missed at least half a day of school in 2016-17.
It is, of course, infuriating for teachers, doing their best to work the daily miracle of education with their pupils, to find some missing their classes on the flimsiest of (or no) excuses. Absence damages learning: besides, schools are chasing not just targets for pupil attainment but also for attendance, the latter data taking no account of levels of illness, let alone actual truancy.
Holiday fines damage school-parent relations
Moreover, let’s not pretend that all parents are on-side and supportive of schools’ attempts to maintain punctuality, uniform and good behaviour. The average level of such support, impossible to gauge accurately, is probably at an all-time low, as school leaders know from the painful experience of parental reactions when they attempt to discipline a child.
I would never condone children missing school without good reason. Yet, as an unrepentant liberal, I’m uncomfortable with this system of fining, and particularly with schools being part of its mechanism.
First, there’s the law of unintended consequences, which inevitably operates when government adopts heavy-handed measures. Draconian regulation invariably catches and hurts people who were never its initial target.
Parents seeking to take their children out in term time aren’t necessarily feckless or irresponsible, though the legislation assumes they are. Many parents holding down jobs have little, frequently no, choice about their holiday dates. Others, short of cash, view with despair the prices trebling the day school breaks up: they’re tempted to make a significant saving by pulling their child out on that last couple of days when end-of-term fever is taking hold and learning is (dare one suggest?) maybe not in top gear. I wonder how many of the days missed in that ostensibly shocking statistic are accounted for by that example.
I’m not excusing such parental actions: just trying to understand them.
At a time when we’re seeking to strengthen schools’ relations with parents, and engagement in both directions, outright bans and swift progression to imposing fines must have a negative impact. A school’s authoritarian stance on holidays can only render it forbidding to parents. Indeed, I’ve known highly supportive and responsible families too fearful to ask permission for their child to attend important family celebrations – for example, a grandparents’ diamond wedding.
Such consequences of that conflict between schools’ functions of care and (effectively) policing are among the reasons why I don’t think the responsibility should lie with heads: though, while it does, I respect their duty (and determination) to do so.
In the end, though, the figures (and Lancashire’s hawkish bid to increase the fine) suggest the tactic isn’t working. While it fails, and the tourist industry continues grotesquely to jack up holiday prices, I’m reminded of the statement apocryphally attributed to Captain Bligh of the Bounty: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Getting tough didn’t work for him, either.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford