The government has announced its intention to introduce tougher measures to address truancy in schools, including deducting the cost of unpaid penalty notices from child benefit payments.
In 2012 the Department for Education published Improving attendance at school, a policy paper written by Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert advisor on behaviour in schools. The report made several recommendations, including the simplification of penalty notices for non-attendance in school payable under section 444A of the Education Act 1996 and increasing the penalty amount (see Legal update, Government publishes regulations increasing penalties for parents of excluded or truanting pupils).
Under the current regime, for each instance of a child playing truant a £60 penalty is due, doubling to £120 if remaining unpaid after 21 days. If the penalty notice is still unpaid after 28 days, parents of children absent from school can be subject to prosecution by the relevant local authority. For more information on school attendance and the penalty notice regime, see our Practice notes, School attendance in England, and School attendance: prosecutions, and also our Standard document, Fixed penalty notice: failure to attend school.
Need for change
Current figures suggest that around 40% of fines go unpaid, with many local authorities lacking the will or resources to seek prosecution through the courts system. Government sources claim that 52,000 parents were fined over the last year, with only 30,700 paying the penalty notices. This resulted in the loss of around 42.5 million school days to truancy in 2013/14.
In a bid to enforce payment of fines more effectively and simplify the process of dealing with parents of truanting children, on 6 October 2015, the government announced new proposals at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. The planned changes include the introduction of provisions that will allow local authorities to recover unpaid penalty notices directly from parents’ child benefit, and where parents do not receive child benefit, through the courts.
These measures are expected to cut local authorities’ legal costs by removing the need to take these parents who do not voluntarily pay penalty notices to court. Local authorities will be given a new statutory duty to pursue all penalties, including instigating court proceedings for non-paying parents who do not receive child benefit.
The government also plans to issue statutory guidance explaining how local authorities can use a range of sanctions to tackle truancy, including criminal prosecution in the most serious cases, enabling local authorities to continue imposing fines of up to £2,500 and seek possible imprisonment.
Will this solve the problem?
Critics of the new proposals, including representatives from the teacher’s union NASUWT, have suggested that docking benefits at source will penalise families unfairly and create chaos and uncertainty for children. While the existing penalty system is evidently not a sufficient incentive for some parents to ensure their children attend school, the fear is that increasing deprivation may only exacerbate the problem, by further damaging the chance of the stable home life that children need to do well at school.
Whether the proposals will be successful in the long run remains to be seen.