The problem with levying financial penalties on parents taking children out of school in term time is that it can make the council or school out to be ‘the bad guy.’ Matters aren’t helped when the savings families can make by booking trips outside of the school holidays are so significant – sometimes as much as 100%.
Even if a fine’s set at £1,000, as recently proposed by Lancashire County Council, a family of four can still make a saving that’s more significant than the fine itself by booking their holiday during term time.
The head of a school where I was previously the chair of governors referred to such incidents as a ‘theft of education’. By taking a child out of school during term time, what you’re effectively doing is depriving that child of education that will directly benefit their future.
The hardest hit
The standard term time absence fine is currently £60 if paid within 21 days, rising to £120 if not. Aside from being far less than the amount families can expect to save on their holiday costs, there’s another issue in that families who are less well off tend to be hit harder by financial penalties.
The lessons of defamation cases
Affluent families are better placed to budget around the financial cost of fines – and it may well be that wealthier families are more likely to remove their children at times when it’s advantageous for the parents to take time off work, which may or may not coincide with the school holidays.
In the course of my legal practice I’ve come to understand the effectiveness of a particular sanction encountered in defamation cases, where an individual who’s defamed someone must make an apology – usually worded by the person making the claim – in open court for their behaviour.
I’ve found that individuals in these cases are typically quite intimidated by having to attend court and apologise before a judge. I can picture this as a far more effective way of dealing with people who have taken their children out of school during term time; requiring them to either make an apology, or provide an explanation for their actions in open court.
It’s a sanction that wouldn’t disproportionately penalise the less well off, and would fall harder on those willing to be dishonest about their reasons for taking their children out of school during term time.
At the moment, if people are prepared to make up a sympathetic reason, schools will be more likely to authorise a term time absence. If those families had to provide that explanation in open court and it was false, they’d be in contempt. People would be compelled to reflect on the value of their decision, the justification for it and whether they’d be willing to perjure themselves.
The state has to decide on the value it’s willing to place on children receiving education during term time. When children truant, the state will try and chase them down in local neighbourhoods and eventually return them to school, as it’s deemed to be of crucial importance that they don’t miss a day of their education, yet we have some children missing two weeks of school at a time.
This alternative sanction would stop people short and make them think. There could be all sorts of implications – parents would need to ask employers for time off, for example – but it would be less about the adult’s punishment, and more about actively preventing the children involved from losing out on their education.
Emma Banister Dean is a partner at Royds Withy King Solicitors