Amidst the analysis of the election results, there has been coverage of the news that local authorities are going to begin fining parents if their child is persistently late to school. There is no set definition of persistent, but it looks like it will be somewhere around 10 times across a half term, which equates to being late roughly twice a week. Parents will be fined £60 and will the fine will be doubled to £120 if they do not make the payment within 21 days.
Whilst this new policy aims to do the right thing by getting children into school, it does not reflect the various issues leading to persistent lateness and risks doing more harm than good.
If a child is late to school on such a regular basis it suggests that there is an underlying reason behind it, and one that the school are unlikely to be aware of. In order to address the punctuality issue we need to understand the cause and put in place the support to address it.
There are a number of possible explanations for lateness, which aren’t going to go away by taking money off the family.
We know that there is a housing crisis across the UK. Shelter report that there are 1.6 million children across Britain living in housing that is overcrowded, temporary, or run down. As in cases SHS practitioners have worked with, if a child is sleeping in a house with severe damp issues and unable to sleep due their cough, or they are sharing a blow up mattress with their mother and two siblings, are we surprised that they struggle to get to school on time?
In London, 11,513 homeless households were placed in temporary accommodation outside of their home borough. This can drastically increase the distance they have to travel to get to school. A number of the parents SHS work with have to use three or four buses to get their children to school, and whilst school children get free transport, if parents don’t have the money for buses, it is a big struggle to get the children to school on time.
The 2011 census identified 178,000 young carers in England and Wales with 13,000 children providing care for over 50 hours per week. The Children’s Society estimates this is just the tip of the iceberg. Young carers may well be late to school after taking care of family members at home. We need to provide much more support to young carers and their families, not impose fines which will make life more difficult.
These are just a few of the issues that can result in a child turning up to school late. These issues are often hidden from schools and other services. It is vital that schools have a better understanding of their student’s lives so that they can provide the support that is needed. The recent report from Ofsted on “Early Help: whose responsibility” clearly highlights the role schools should be playing in these difficult circumstances.
Fining parents is not going to solve the issue, but is likely to make it even more difficult for families and children to succeed. And doubling the fine for parents not making a quick payment is further punishment for those living in poverty when finding a spare £60 is not an option. More needs to be done to ensure that the needs of children and families are understood. At SHS, we know that by providing support to children and families we can make significant improvements to attendance, punctuality and their wider lives.