School absence fines – Will parents be fined if they don’t send their children back in September

Lawyer Karen Holden explores whether parents who keep their child at home because they do not believe school is safe will be fined...

With lots of anticipation and trepidation surrounding the return to school, the government has said all pupils are required to return to school unless otherwise agreed.

This means that, when absence is not agreed, fines can be issued.

While there has been much debate and criticism over the issue of fines, it seems that they are back in full force.

Unfortunately, with the fine for absent children potentially reaching £120 (equal to eight weeks of food vouchers for a low-income family), coupled with looming job losses, it is crucial that parents and teachers are aware of the law surrounding absenteeism.

Legal requirements

Parents or carers of a child have a legal responsibility to ensure their child receives a suitable education. This is usually achieved through regular attendance at school.

Under current regulations, schools must put their children’s names on the admissions register.

If a pupil does not attend school, they are marked as absent. This absenteeism can be either authorised or unauthorised.

Schools will usually authorise an absence if the child:

  • is too ill to attend and the school accepts this
  • the child is being educated off-site
  • the parent has got the advance permission of the school
  • the child has a medical appointment
  • the child is on study leave
  • the child has been excluded

Schools are required to regularly inform the local authority of any child who is regularly absent from school.

Local lockdowns and quarantining are valid reasons not to attend school.

The local authority and school can use several legal powers to enforce attendance, including:

  • a fine
  • an education supervision order
  • a parenting order
  • a school attendance order

Check your local authority to see their rules on issuing fines.

School fines for unauthorised absence

Usually, the school will decide if an absence is to be classed as unauthorised. This is then referred to your local authority.

The school absence fine is £60, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days.

Currently, pupils who have to self-isolate as they, or a member of their household, has symptoms or confirmed coronavirus won’t need to be added as an absence statistic, and therefore will not be fined.

However, if a parent is not making their child attend school because they do not believe it is safe, the child will need to be marked as absent.

If this happens for a prolonged period of time, the child may be reported to the local authority, leading to the issuing of a fine.

As schools have a legal requirement to report absent children, it is not advised that they take it upon themselves to decide whether to report absent children.

Instead, the required report should be made and the local authority, who issues fines, will make the final call.

This fine was waived during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the education minister has recently confirmed that the fines will be active again in September.

If a fine is issued, there is no right to appeal. If you do not pay the fine, the local authority can proceed to prosecution through the courts or withdraw the notice.

Discrimination

Headteachers should remain consistent in their approach to pursuing parents and ensure action is non-discriminatory.

Their decision cannot be determined by gender, age, ability or ethnicity, otherwise their actions could come under scrutiny and in breach of the Equality Act.

Reality

On the face of it, parents and carers in England who do not send their children back to school in September will face fines.

The government has been steady in its recent advice that schools are safe places and more damage will be done to children who do not attend than to those who do.

With this in mind, it is likely that fines will soon become the norm again.

While not guaranteed, it is unlikely that there will be an all-encompassing, strict approach to the issuing of fines if a parent decides not to send their child to school.

There has been lots of criticism around the current approach and schools do seem to understand the anxiousness felt by some parents.

Although effective measures will be put into schools to aid in social distancing, it is hoped that a system will be implemented where local authorities contact families before issuing fines.

Government advice has been published for schools on absence and this must be followed.

The Government has also produced an addendum to this advice that is Covid-19 specific.

While fines are certainly possible, it is likely that an open dialogue with schools and the local authority will become the first point of call in order to build trust with families before hastening to fines.

What should parents do if they receive a fine?

If a parent has concerns about the health and safety of their child, they should first look at risk assessments and policies put in place by the school.

If they still have concerns, they should raise them with the school directly and then with the council if the matter is not resolved.

Parents must be clear that what they are concerned about goes against government advice and, where possible, we suggest getting physical evidence of any breach.

If you are then fined for your child not attending school, you may have a defence if you have followed this process and the issue has not been resolved, although this is not guaranteed.