‘Terrified’ parents living in fear of ‘unfair’ absence prosecutions

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Thousands of parents across the country are facing fines due to school absences with the BBC revealing more than 71,000 were issued up to Easter this year alone, costing parents a total of almost £4million. But in some instances, the local authorities can take further action: prosecution.

Some children struggle with school attendance for a multitude of reasons; special educational needs and disabilities, physical or mental illness, bullying, and many more. Campaigners are now saying parents of these children are being unfairly penalised, facing “terrifying” threats of fines, prosecution, and even prison sentences, and put in an “impossible situation”. 

According to Section 444 of the 1996 Education Act, parents are guilty of an offence if their child does not attend school regularly. This is deemed more serious if the parent “knows” their child is not attending and can result in prosecution.

The Government does not set specific attendance targets, schools set their own. But generally, an attendance rate of 95 percent is considered good, which allows for children to miss 9.5 days over the course of the year. The Government states a “persistent absence” threshold is breached when a pupil misses 10 percent or more of their possible school sessions, with a session considered to be one morning or afternoon. 

The Department of Education’s (DfE) new Schools Bill is under its third reading in the House of Lords and has set out guidance called “Working together to improve school attendance”. Although it is currently an “expectation” for schools, it will become statutory if and when the Bill is passed.

It stipulates that fixed penalty notices can be dished out “in line with local codes of conduct” where absences were unauthorised and “support has been provided but has not worked/been engaged with, or would not have been appropriate” such as if the parent took their child on an unauthorised holiday. It also states prosecution should be taken as a last resort where all other routes have been “exhausted or deemed inappropriate”. 

But campaigners Susan Liverman, of North Northamptonshire, and Maddie Roberts, of Bedfordshire, say this legislation means tens of thousands of parents are facing an “impossible situation” as there is a “disconnect” between the policy and how it’s being implemented by local authorities.

They started the petition, “Stop the Schools Bill” which has 191,300 signatures, in a bid to prevent parents from being prosecuted when their children “cannot, not will not” go to school.

Maddie and Susan met through an online support group as both their sons have autism and struggled to cope with attending mainstream school. As a result, both Maddie and Susan were threatened with fines as a means to get their youngsters back into the classroom. 

Susan told “The catalyst for the petition was obviously our own experience of our brush up against the attendance guidance, but then we saw that it was being hardened further and it’s sweeping up parents that it’s not intended to sweep up. DfE is clear that the guidance isn’t intended to penalise vulnerable, marginalised families.”

The guidance states schools and their partners should work with pupils and parents to remove any barriers by building strong and trusting relationships and working together to put “the right support in place”. 

“But DfE doesn’t understand how local authorities are implementing policy,” Susan said. “The local authorities are taking attendance guidance at face value and are not really having that nuance of where it should and shouldn’t be applied.

DfE has said local authorities are expected to have sensitive conversations with families, but we’re seeing on the ground that that is not happening. We’re seeing a real disconnect between the actual policy and the way it’s being implemented.” 

A family support Facebook page called “Not Fine in School” brings parents facing school attendance difficulties together and has 32,000 members. Maddie said: “The number of members in the group is rising every day. Even though you’ve got that amount of parents in a group from all different areas, the stories are all so similar. It’s like sometimes parents get the same script.” 

She explained that many parents struggle to obtain proof of their child’s “unauthorised” absence. For instance, GPs do not have a “statutory duty” to provide informal sick notes for children.

But some parents have taken drastic measures to avoid being fined. She explained: “Some have resorted to taking their children out of school, to home educate, just to avoid the threat of fines. That’s the desperation that parents are facing.”

In some cases, parents are handed a Single Justice Procedure notice (SJP). These cases are effectively dealt with behind closed doors by a single Magistrate on the basis of the papers alone without either party having to attend court for a hearing.

If parents are found guilty or plead guilty, each might be liable for a fine of up to £1,000. However, if it is proven that the parent knew the child was not attending school regularly with there being “no justifiable reason” for their absence, then they could receive a fine of up to £2,500 and/or a prison term of up to three months.

Susan said some parents who are being threatened with prosecution are “terrified”: “The stress that local authorities are putting on parents is beyond unacceptable.”

Luvdeep Miah and her husband, based in Streatham, London, have four children and say they were handed an SJP last month “out of nowhere”. They are currently fighting it, forking out £15,000 in legal fees.

In 2018, their six-year-old daughter, Kareena, was diagnosed with kidney cancer when she was just two years old. Kareena, who her mother described as “incredibly strong, sociable, and loved by everyone she meets”, finished her chemotherapy, had one of her kidneys removed, and finally went back to school in September 2021.

However, she often fell ill as she is more susceptible to infection and suffers from night terrors thought to stem from the trauma of being in hospital for treatment.

Luvdeep told “Some nights, she can lose up to eight hours of sleep. She gets affected more severely by illness and has been late to school due to her night terrors. But she loves school and her friends.”

According to the SJP notice, between February 4 and July 4 this year, Kareena had 52 percent attendance. Luvdeep continued: “Kareena was thriving, but a few weeks into school we got the SJP out of nowhere. I found it a bit mad because we had done everything on our end.

“The first thing I felt was just the initial shock. We just thought ‘where has this come from?’ I lost sleep over it. I looked for information on SJP notices. I couldn’t really find anything on the forms or anything from the parent’s point of view; the lack of information that was available was frustrating.”

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However, Luvdeep believes they have a “solid case” as she kept “every scrap of paper” detailing all Kareena’s appointments and medical exemptions. She continued: “Local authorities are definitely punishing parents. We wish she didn’t have barriers compared to other children.

“We always put our children first in everything we do. To be made to feel like we’re failing them is ridiculous, a lot of people would not make it through what we did. The Schools Bill means parents like me will be prosecuted. A lot of people don’t have the means to fight SJPs and I feel it’s just unfair to them.

“The language is geared towards accepting the fine and just paying. But for me, it’s a matter of principle – I could get a criminal record for ensuring that my child’s wellbeing came first. But I’m someone who always speaks out against injustice: me paying the fine is me paying into a broken system.”

Maddie and Susan want to see the attendance guidance more clearly define what is meant by “support” and when fines and prosecution should not be given, such as if a child is on a waiting list for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services. They also want to see the gap closed between what the DfE says should happen and what local authorities are doing. 

Maddie, addressing others in these “heartbreaking” situations, said: “Parents are not alone. There are people who are really trying to highlight the issue and get changes made because it cannot continue as it is.

It’s heartbreaking to see this many children and parents struggling. Whatever the Government seems to think, fines and prosecution are never going to solve the problem. The level of damage that it is doing is incredible.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “School is the best place for children to be, which is why our new attendance guidance sets out clear best practice for how schools can support pupils and families, making sure schools take a consistent approach right across the country.

“We expect schools to have sensitive conversations with pupils and families about their needs, and work with families to offer targeted help where they can to encourage regular attendance. Fines for parents should only be used as a last resort, where there is no valid reason for a child’s absence.”

North Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Lambeth councils did not respond to requests for comment.

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