Parents in Tower Hamlets were whacked with nearly 2,000 fines in one year for their children missing school.
Figures obtained by law firm Simpson Millar through a Freedom of Information Act request show Tower Hamlets Council issued 1,915 Education Penalty Notices (EPNs) for unauthorised absence during the 2015/16 school year.
The council was the third most prolific in London when it came to dishing out fines of this nature.
EPNs start at £60 and can double if the fine is not paid within 21 days. If all the fines issued by Tower Hamlets Council were paid within that time, it would amount to £114,900.
Simpson Millar’s Julie Robertson specialises in helping families challenge EPNs. She 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.”
It is up to headteachers to notify the council when a child misses school without a good enough reason, but Robertson says this leads to a “postcode lottery”.
She added: “What one headteacher agrees are special circumstances, another doesn’t. We need more consistency and, in some areas, more common sense.”
“Clearly, 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.”
Across England, a total of 114,165 fines were issued by local authorities in 2015/16, amounting to at least £6,849,900 if all the penalties were paid within 21 days.
And Robertson claims parents are often “frightened” into coughing up quickly because of the tone and language used by schools and councils regarding EPNs.
The government’s own website says people could be forced to attend parenting classes – through Parenting Orders from local councils – or even face prosecution, warning: “You could get a fine of up to £2,500, a community order or a jail sentence up to three months.”
Robertson said: “The threat of criminal proceedings and a possible conviction naturally makes parents pay up without question. It is a very effective tactic.”
She also called for parents to be given “clear and independent advice” about how to challenge EPNs, adding: “The court is our safeguard to ensure that rules are being applied fairly, and more parents need to take advantage of that opportunity.
“In court, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not the parents. The prosecution has to prove that the parent did not secure regular attendance and, in my experience, they often can’t. In fact, these cases are regularly thrown out of court at half time.”
Robertson claims that many of her clients do not care about the financial implications of a fine. She said: “They don’t want it on record that they are bad parents, let alone to face criminal sanctions.”
According to Tower Hamlets Council, government legislation states that money raised from EPNs can only be used to pay for the administration of the penalty notice scheme. It also confirmed that it had made no Parenting Orders in the 2015/16 school year.
A council spokesperson said: “Parents have a duty to make sure that their children attend school. There are very clear links between attendance and attainment – every lesson really does count.
“We carry out a range of actions – including issuing penalty notices where necessary – to make sure that school attendance figures in Tower Hamlets stay high. Secondary school average attendance in Tower Hamlets is amongst the highest in the country.
“Our attendance and welfare service also works very closely with local schools giving advice, assistance and support where attendance and unauthorised absences are a concern.
“Government guidelines are clear that head teachers are not expected to grant any leave of absence during term time unless there are exceptional circumstances.”