Huge fall in school absence fines in Shropshire in 2020

Almost 2,000 fewer fines were issued to parents in the county after their children missed school last year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, figures reveal.

Department for Education (DfE) data shows that 208 penalty notices were issued to Telford and Wrekin parents for a child’s poor attendance in 2020-21 - down 87 per cent from 1,623 in 2018-19.

In Shropshire, the number fell 88 per cent from 596 in 2018-19 to 69 last year.

Measures did not apply for two months when schools were not open to all pupils and there were no figures available for 2019-20 because of the pandemic.

Of the fines last year, all in Telford and most in Shropshire were for unauthorised family holidays.

Across England, the number of notices issued fell from 333,400 to just 45,800 over this period – a fall of 86 per cent, and the lowest number since 2011-12.

Their use varied greatly in different parts of the country, with 15 local authorities issuing 10 or fewer.

Meanwhile, just a dozen areas were responsible for over a third of all fines nationally last year.

The National Association of Headteachers described the significant drop as unsurprising, as the crisis "fundamentally changed" the education landscape.

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Fines have always been a blunt instrument when it comes to managing persistent absenteeism, and even more so if the reasons are related to the pandemic.

"Schools will be working closely with families where persistent absenteeism is an issue to provide the necessary support to help get pupils back into school.

"The reality is that if a parent is concerned enough about their child’s safety to keep them off school, the threat of a fine is unlikely to change their minds.”

Penalty notices are £60 if paid within 21 days of being issued, but rise to £120 if paid between 22 and 28 days.

If the penalty is still outstanding, the council must either prosecute for the original offence or withdraw the notice.

There were almost 5,000 prosecutions for non-payment nationally last year – two in Telford and Wrekin and one in Shropshire.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s important that all children are in school during term time, particularly as most will have missed out on extended periods of face-to-face education over the last two years, and many continue to face ongoing disruption as a result of Covid.

“Headteachers have discretion over whether to classify an absence as authorised or unauthorised, and local authorities over whether to issue penalty notices.

"All involved will be mindful of the difficult circumstances of the last two years when making those decisions.”

A DfE spokeswoman said fines are available to local authorities when there is no lawful reason for a child's absence, but other support to boost attendance can also be offered where appropriate.

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