Number of parents being charged for failing to send their children to school doubles in a year

Under a post-covid crackdown on truancy, the number of parents being charged for failing to send children to school has doubled in less than a year.


Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show that schools and councils are prosecuting 1,700 people a month, which is up from between 700 and 900 a month at the start of 2022. On-the-spot fines (Penalty notices) quadrupled from 45,809 in 2020-21 to 218,235 in 2021-22, with parents paying out find in the region of £12 million.


Following concerns that children were “lost” to education during the pandemic and had failed to return to school, authorities have launched a crackdown aimed at returning children to schooling.


In the first term of the 2021-22 academic year, when most Covid restrictions had been lifted, it was estimated almost 1.8 million children regularly missed school. Last September Ministers issued “non-statutory” guidance requiring schools to ensure all pupils attend, and set out a staged approach which culminates in either a fixed penalty of £60, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days, or prosecution if head teachers deem it necessary.


From this September the guidance will become law. Schools will be obliged to “enforce attendance through statutory intervention or prosecution to protect the pupil’s right to an education where all other avenues have been exhausted.” Schools are currently able to phone, knock on the doors of absent children, arrange late starts or early finishes, taxis, and meetings with parents.


The Department for Education said: “Regular school attendance is vital for a child’s education, well-being and future life chances. Parents have a duty to make sure their child attends school. The number of prosecutions has increased since the pandemic, when they were not used, but remain lower than pre-pandemic. It is for schools and local authorities to work together to support families and prosecutions should only ever be a last resort.”


However, the use of courts through what is known as the single justice procedure (SJP) to prosecute parents has sparked controversy, because most cases are heard behind closed doors by a single Justice of the Peace, without the defendant having to appear.


Campaigners claim that this could lead to miscarriages of justice, with parents denied a chance to explain mitigating circumstances. MoJ figures show 80 per cent do not enter a plea because they may not have received the summons through the post, or do not realise they can plead not guilty and have an open hearing.


Executive director of Square Peg, Ellie Costello, cited a case where a mother receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer was fined the maximum £1,000 and ordered to pay £800 costs over her child’s non-attendance. 


In another case, 15 parents were unlawfully convicted by magistrates of knowingly allowing their children to play truant. This is a more serious criminal offence that carries a maximum three-month jail sentence. Court papers revealed Merton council in south London, which brought the prosecutions, only intended to accuse the parents of truancy, a lesser offence, but five magistrates failed to spot that a different charge had been entered into the system.