‘Bigger picture’ of truancy problems under spotlight

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A Leeds council watchdog has given cautious backing to new plans to enforce stricter fines for parents to crack down on unauthorised pupil absences.

Education bosses are considering proposals to double the number of penalty notices the council can issue to parents of children who are absent from school without permission.

At a meeting at Leeds Civic Hall yesterday, the authority’s Children’s Services Scrutiny Panel gave broad approval to the plans, which could come into force in January.

However members also warned that the city must tackle the “bigger picture” of unauthorised absences, something which is often overshadowed by the contentious issue of term-time holidays.

Figures in a report presented to the panel show 23 per cent of absences among Leeds primary school pupils in the first part of this year were unauthorised.

The figure was higher in secondary schools, where 33 per cent of absences were unauthorised.

However term-time family holidays accounted for only 3.3 per cent of unauthorised absences from secondary schools. The figure has gone down from 4.1 per cent last year.

In primary schools, unauthorised holidays made up eight per cent of the total, also down from nine per cent last year.

Leeds sits 117th out of 152 local authorities in a league of overall truancy rates.

Yesterday’s meeting was told: “The people who take out their children once year for a holiday are probably not the ones we are most concerned about. It’s those who are not getting their children to regularly attend that are the real issue.”

Coun Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s executive member for children’s services, said: “Children who are repeatedly missing school, how do we tackle those? The issue of holidays gets a lot of attention, but it’s actually a bigger picture than that and we can’t miss that.” Coun Fiona Venner pointed out that penalty notices for unauthorised holidays were “actually a small proportion of unauthorised attendance figures”.

Nigel Richardson, the council’s director of children’s services, told the meeting there had been a steady increase in school attendance across the city – equating to 400,000 additional school days taken up last year. He said a “relentless focus on one or two particular things” had contributed to “significant” improvements in attendance rates.

Meanwhile chair of the committee Sue Bentley questioned the rationale of introducing stricter fines just to be in line with other authorities. “It’s not necessarily the right reason for doing it,” she said. “What is the value? Joe Bloggs in the street will think this is just income generation, an easy way for the council to get money into the central pocket.”

Penalty notices are given when a pupil misses more than 10 sessions (five days) over 12 weeks, with fines of £60 per parent per child if paid within 21 days – doubling to £120 within 28 days.

Currently in Leeds, parents can only receive one penalty notice each year – even if a pupil is repeatedly absent from school. But this could double under new plans.

Since the new legislation was introduced in 2013, council bosses in Leeds have gone from issuing just over 100 fines per year to close to 100 fines a week last year. But unauthorised absences remain a problem in the city.