A legal loophole used by some parents to dodge fixed penalty fines for taking children out of school in Rotherham for holidays is set to close from the start of the new academic year as the council seeks to improve attendance rates.
Until now, parents have risked a fixed penalty fine if they have applied for an authorised absence from the school, had it rejected and gone ahead with a holiday absence anyway because headmasters have only been able to impose fines where they have been able to demonstrate a child has been taken on holiday.
So some parents have not applied for authority to take children out of school, simply going ahead with their break in term time leaving the school unable to prove they were away from home.
However, the council’s ruling Cabinet has now authorised changes to the rules which mean fines can be imposed for any unauthorised absence, with the change expected to become active from the start of the new academic year next month.
Numbers of fixed penalties have already risen sharply in the town, with 453 issued in the last financial year, costing parents a total of £23,760, compared to 295 two years previously when the overall bill amounted to £14,760.
Those who pay quickly face a £60 charge, rising to £120 if it is not settled within 21 days.
It will still be up to headmasters to make decisions on applying the new rules, which will work in conjunction with a new attendance target for both primary and secondary schools.
In future all pupils will be expected to be in class for 95.3 per cent of the time, a figure slightly down on the 95.5 per cent attained by primaries, but up on the 94 per cent average for secondary schools.
When pupils’ attendance drops below that figure, fixed penalties can be issued.
In practice, it will mean the average secondary school pupil needing to attend school for an additional 2.5 days per year to hit the target, compared to current statistics.
Coun Gordon Watson told the Cabinet: “For each percentage point attendance drops, achievement drops.
“The final GCSEs follow. It is a straight line graph.
“Anything we can do to encourage attendance is important. When children deliberately take time off to go on holiday the impact is not just on them it is on the whole class. Teachers try to ‘catch them up’ and it isn’t easy. It then has an impact on the whole class.”
*The Cabinet also agreed to move ahead with a scheme aimed at getting children in local authority care back living with their families.
It will follow the principles of a similar arrangement in Leeds, which has a 75 per cent success rate, which is improving as the scheme becomes settled.
In Rotherham it is hoped to use the lessons learned in Leeds to provide a head start.
It will involve working with children at a new residential centre and some of the money for that will come from the savings made through not having them in other forms of care.
But there will be additional expenses and although a final decision on raising that money will be made later, a favoured option would be to raise the cash from a socially-responsible entrepreneur with a modest rate of interest, meaning if the scheme went wrong there would be no cost to the authority.
An application has been made for a Government grant which, if successful, would also cover the interest payments.