Why punish parents whose children don’t go to school? A new report by Rona Epstein, Geraldine Brown and Sarah O’Flynn begs the question. Most parents whose children are absent from school without authorisation probably get rapped over the knuckles the first time. But thousands of parents are given fixed penalty fines for the unauthorised absence of their children (400,000 over three years) and thousands are taken to court. In 2017 in England and Wales 16,406 people were prosecuted for their children’s school absence, of whom 11, 739 (71%) were women. There is very little research on this offence but this report raises huge concerns about the way the legislation is used.
No-one condones children missing school, or parents who turn a blind eye to it. But what proportion of the parents fined and prosecuted are actually wilful? This report suggests maybe very few. The law concerning children’s absence from school is one of strict liability. That means that local authorities simply have to prove that a child was absent for a certain amount of time when taking action. They don’t have to prove it was the parents’ fault, simply that the school did not approve the absence.
Fixed penalty fines are a blunt instrument which appear to drag a huge variety of absences into the criminal net. They are imposed on parents who take their children on holiday during term time, and on parents who cannot get their children to go to school, for whatever reason. Each fixed penalty fines is £60 which escalates to £120 if not paid within three weeks. £60 is a drop in the ocean for a well-off family wishing to go on holiday in term time. But the parents of an entrenched school refuser may get several fines. If they live in poverty, fines will be very hard to pay.
The reasons why so many parents are prosecuted in court is not clear. Presumably some prosecutions are of parents who have not paid their fines, and others of parents whose children are still not attending school despite fines. Attendance below 90% (three weeks absence from school) can trigger prosecution. The Prosecuting Parents report suggests that threatening to, and prosecuting parents can be both pointless and damaging. 126 parents who had been persued due to their child’s absence responded to a survey circulated on social media. Most had children with behavioural, neurological or mental health difficulties and felt that placing the blame on parents was totally inappropriate. All wished they could get their children to school but they reported that their children were often anxious, often highly anxious. They described night terrors, extreme reactions of fear when it was time to go to school. One parent reported meltdowns, vomiting, migraine, collapsing, self-harm. 40% of the children were on the autistic spectrum and 90% had special educational needs and/or a disability. Many of the children had been bullied at school. A parent from Cumbria wrote that her daughter with autism hated school:
“Myself disabled, husband autistic, daughter autistic, son ADHD. The school did not meet her daughter’s needs: School threatened her that we would be sent to prison, which just increased anxiety. School weren’t willing to be flexible and consider her needs to enable her to be happy attending school, constantly dismissed her anxiety etc”
Not surprisingly parental stress is increased by threats of fines and court proceedings.
“Colleen (Bristol City) is a single parent who has two children who do not attend school regularly. Her 12 year-old experiences extreme menstrual bleeding and severe menstrual pain. The 7 year-old was bullied in reception and first year of another primary school – developed symptoms of PTSD, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, disassociation, and was school refusing. Colleen writes: I received letters from attendance officers at both schools. The secondary school letter details fine amount/court proceedings etc. I have spoken with him to tell him, it makes no difference to my daughter being unwell”.
Parents feels particularly frustrated when they have fought tooth and nail for better education for their child:
“Lola (Westminster), whose 16 year-old daughter has Asperger’s, social anxiety, fear and depression, reported: Repeated threats to prosecute (read me ‘my rights’ “You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say may be used in evidence against you” etc), to take my child into ‘care’, to put me in prison – despite eight years of medical evidence provided. Children’s Services, actionned a Child Protection Plan (which was in place for a year) against me, for neglect for ‘failing to ensure my child received appropriate education’ despite my repeated requests for school / Local Authority to provide appropriate education support, despite eight years medical / CAMHS evidence. I brought a complaint against the LA, which took three years to complete. My child’s physical and mental health have been severely damaged, she is school and education phobic. My physical and mental health have been severely damaged. I am unable to work due to being my child’s full time carer and also my own health problems caused by this horrendous nightmare”.
The report reflects the testimony of parents. We do not know the local authorities’ perspective. But it seems clear that many parents see criminal sanctions or the threat of criminal sanctions as disproportionate and unfair, particularly if they were crying out for help and support. We need to know more about the thousands of parents fined and prosecuted for their children’s school absence. We know 120 were given suspended/actual prison sentences in 2017 but not why, nor how long those sentences were. We don’t know what kind of community orders were used, nor whether any of these sanctions worked. Did the parents who were fined or prosecuted then manage to get their children to school? National rates for unauthorised school absence went up from 1.1 per cent in 2015/16 to 1.3 per cent in 2016/17, so maybe punitive measures are not changing behaviour?