A Wirral councillor said fines for parents should be “so prohibitive” they don’t take their children on holiday during term time.
Conservative councillor Kathy Hodson made the comments at a Wirral Council children and education committee following concerns raised by Labour councillor Stephen Bennett over the cost of penalty notices given out to parents for school absence due to the rising cost of living.
Overall attendance has dropped by 2.7% in Wirral with the biggest reason for school absences being illness but the local authority can’t issue fines for this reason.
In recent years parents have been fined more and more for taking their children out of school during term time to go on holiday. The latest figures for Wirral in 2022/23 were the highest ever with 2,085 fines given out for holidays.
Parents are thought to be looking to take advantage of cheaper flights and holiday costs outside of the school holidays and between 2018 and 2022, the number of schools requesting penalty notices increased by 30%.
The government currently sets the fine for penalty notices related to school absence at £60 if it is paid within 21 days and £120 if paid between 22 and 28 days
Council director Simone White however said any fines for parents struggling financially didn’t tend to be for holidays as they were unable to afford the holiday in the first place let alone the fine. The council also said it would consider reasonable offers made by parents struggling financially.
At the September 25 meeting, Cllr Hodson said there has been a “cultural shift in how parents perceive school,” adding: “When I was little, you just wouldn’t dare not go to school in term time.”
She said, “If you’re going to try to get a handle on this, you’re probably going to have to make the fee for not attending schools so prohibitive that the cost of the fine would be far more than the cost of a holiday
“If you reduce the fees and if children don’t go to school, it doesn’t really act as a deterrent.”
Cllr Stephen Bennett said, “It’s imperative to get as many children into school as much as possible and I know basically the last resort will be a financial penalty above anything else.”
However, he was concerned that for some families if they are unable to pay the upfront, they could face paying much more down the line. Cllr Bennett said, “I’m just thinking if some of these children, these families are in child poverty and there could be a social reason or other reasons why they’re not going to school, and they are having to pay more than someone who can afford to pay the fine because they can’t afford to pay the fine.”
Officer James Blackhouse said a lot of schools had changed their policy, adding, “We do understand the decisions parents have got to make with the cost of living but ultimately we’ve got statutory guidance we need to follow and therefore it needs to be consistently approached.”
He added, “We do know the impact it can have if a child has 10% absence through an academic year, it will really have an effect on how they progress through school.”
Wirral’s attendance manager Damian Stormont also said they were encouraging schools to look at patterns of absence and Wirral may follow a project being carried out by Birmingham Council that works with NHS services to assess school absence due to illness.