The news from the Ministry of Justice, obtained be the Press Association under a FoI request, that there has been a steep rise in prosecutions for non-attendance at school is concerning. The increase has been linked variously to the increase in pupil numbers and to the stricter rules introduced last year about taking pupils away from school during term time to go on a family holiday. Commentators have noted that the current level of the fixed penalty fine is less than the savings a family can obtain by going on holiday in term time. To that extent it amounts to a tax on those earners who can afford to pay yet still make the savings.
However, there is a deeper issue here that relates to many of the rules established in order to run our school system; some still dating from the nineteenth century. For instance, the rules about pupils eligible for free transport and the nature of ‘safe routes’ pupils can walk date back into the mists of time. They are also not applied uniformly across the country, with parents in London receiving a much more generous deal that their rural counterparts. Maybe, the DfE should set up a Commission to review all these rules and how they help create an effective school system for the twenty-first century.
On the vexed question of holidays in term time, I have two suggestions to make. Firstly, no holiday should be allowed during the first year a pupil is at school. Based upon attendance during that year, pupils will good attendance records can be allowed up to two weeks in the following year. This provides an incentive for attendance and recognises that a child going on holiday one year would not be eligible the following year and would need to earn the opportunity in the subsequent year through continued good attendance.
Secondly, I would suggest to Mr Gove that trials for non-attendance are just the sort of cases that could be used to try out a scheme for magistrates’ court hearings in local buildings. The closure of so many courts, and the proposed closure of many more, mean both parents and officers prosecuting cases often now have to travel considerable distances and then wait around for the case to be heard. I am sure that this encourages ‘no shows’ on the part of parents that hope to drag out the proceedings for as long as possible.
As an incentive, trails for non-attendance held locally, in say town council offices, could be exempt from the bizarre Criminal Court Charge that apparently imposes a fee of £520 on a parent that turns up and pleads ‘not guilty’ but only imposes a fee of £150 if they don’t bother to attend and the prosecutions still has to prove the case in absence. This Charge is on top of court fines and costs.
There is no more risk in dealing with these cases in local public buildings that in hearing transport to school appeals. The alternative would be to removal the criminal sanction from a failure to send children to school, but since the courts apparently sent 18 parents to prison for the offence such a move might spark a wider debate about the use of custody.