why it’s important parents should not be encouraged to take unauthorised leaves of absence

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog and elsewhere too recently will know that we have had a death in the family, and that my wife was given compassionate leave by the same institution which in the same week refused our daughter permission for authorised leave of absence to see her grandfather before he died of a horrific cancer.

In the letter which refused the permission for our daughter, and which arrived through the post on 25th March 2014, the day the leave of absence was supposed to start and two days after her grandfather had died of his (I believe) three-week long haemorrhage, they included the following information (it looks like a standard letter for the purpose, which probably explains why they have chosen to give the impression that to visit a dying grandfather under such circumstances is to be seen by the education system – or this school/local authority in particular – as a holiday):

Should you still choose to take a holiday with your child during this period, a Fixed Penalty Notice will be requested by the school nominated person on your child’s return to school should the absence be five days or more.  The notice will then be issued to you (and husband/wife/partner) by the Local Authority in accordance of section 44 of the Education Act 1996.  The current rates payable by parents are £60 where the amount is paid within 21 days and £120 where the amount is paid within 28 days.  This charge is per parent/carer per child.  If the fixed penalty notice remains unpaid this could lead to prosecution in the Magistrate’s Court.

Please note any child who is absent longer than five days after the indicated return date can be legally removed from the school register and the parent/carer may be liable to prosecution.

Now, in the phonecall which the school made on 21st March 2014, informing me of their decision (nothing to fault here – they responded the morning we put our daughter’s request in, so excellent customer focus in this part of the process), the above information was also conveyed to me: that is to say, up to four days incurred no financial penalty whilst five days and above would involved a Fixed Penalty Notice.  Though I have to say I got the impression the school was saying that an unauthorised absence would be the best solution all round, I cannot prove this – but I think the above excerpt from their written reply does make it obvious that the implication/inference is in the air.

I thought little more of this until yesterday, when a language assistant from another school phoned me to offer their condolences.  When I explained the situation, they said they would simply have taken unauthorised absence up to the four-day limit.  I was very angry with this suggestion and explained – as I did to my Member of Parliament’s office last week – exactly why this was wrong: government policy is based (should be based anyhow) on data which is reliable.  On the back of the recent September 2013 amendments to leave of absence legislation, if parents and schoolchildren are being encouraged explicitly or implicitly by their schools and colleges to take unauthorised leaves of absence in cases of real compassionate need, the government will get the impression that there is a veritable plague of term-time holidays being taken, and seeing that few go over the four-day limit, will decide to bring in even more draconian amendments.  Perhaps we will even get to the point that a one-day unauthorised absence will lead to a Fixed Penalty Notice.

Which is why I think the government needs to investigate more widely here: is our experience a one-off case or are more education institutions complying with overarching targets (whether national or zealously local) not to give leaves of absence for any compassionate reasons?  And if the latter, what implications does this have for the datasets that local and national absentee forums and policy-making committees are currently basing their conclusions on?

I do think this needs to be taken into the open.  So a final question: do you have similar experiences or know of anyone who does?  Is this just a Cheshire thing – or is it happening in other parts of the country?

Comments and opinions most welcome, of course.  It’s now up to us all – both parents and professionals – to understand better the real compassionate needs of our schoolchildren.

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