Wigan Council has been accused of providing “misleading information” on its website about the fines it issues for school absences.
Law firm Simpson Millar is calling on all councils to take a more “common sense” approach to truancy fines after it revealed that at least £6.8m was paid to local authorities in fines in the 2015/16 school year.
If you are taken to court, there are only four reasons that you can defend the charges against you. These are if your child is ill or couldn’t go to school due to an emergency, lives over a certain distance and we haven’t been able to help get them into a school nearer to you or help with transport, misses school due to religious reasons and has an authorised absence
But they single out Wigan Council as an example of how it believes parents are being misled by authorities over the reasons they can use to defend the charges if they end up in court.
Simpson Millar points out that Wigan Council’s website states: “If you are taken to court, there are only four reasons that you can defend the charges against you. These are if your child is ill or couldn’t go to school due to an emergency, lives over a certain distance and we haven’t been able to help get them into a school nearer to you or help with transport, misses school due to religious reasons and has an authorised absence.”
But Julie Robertson, a solicitor from Simpson Millar who specialises in helping families challenge unreasonable fines, said this is misleading. She said: “It misses the point that if a parent is prosecuted, it is for the council to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a parent has not secured regular attendance.
“In other words, the list should also include reference to the child having had regular attendance at school.”
According to figures obtained via a freedom of information request, Wigan Council issued 323 fines for pupil absences in the 2015/16 school year. Simpson Millar estimates on the basis that all those fined paid the minimum of £60, Wigan Council received £19,380.
This is a far lower figure than in other areas. Manchester City Council,for example issued 4,579 fines making them an estimated £274,470. Suffolk County Council topped the table with 5,668 fines issued, totalling an estimated £340,080.
Ms Robertson said: “These figures are quite frankly staggering. Even though some cities clearly have more school children on their books than others, it seems that certain areas are particularly prolific when it comes to handing out fines for unauthorised absence. What one head teacher agrees are special circumstances, another doesn’t.
“It is a postcode lottery. We need more consistency and, in some areas, more common sense. Some schools are using their discretion appropriately where the parents are sensible in their choices and decisions.
“Others seem to be rather abundant in slapping parents with a fine regardless of the circumstances. ”
Alan Lindsay, Wigan Council’s assistant director for education, said: “The figures illustrate how Wigan Council, alongside our schools, takes a measured approach when it comes to education penalty notices. Unlike some councils our current policy does not instantly issue notices for holidays in term time. An initial warning is issued followed by a fine if further absence triggers are met.