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Parents of more than 60 Suffolk schoolchildren appear in court in one day over alleged truancy

PUBLISHED: 06:00 06 January 2016

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The parents of more than 60 Suffolk schoolchildren faced court action in just a single day in an ongoing clampdown on alleged truancy.

The proceedings - which involved numerous court hearings yesterday before magistrates in Ipswich and Lowestoft - is the latest sign of the rigorous approach being taken on the issue.

Parents of 31 children were due to appear at South East Suffolk Magistrates’ Court and parents of 30 children before Lowestoft Magistrates.

Families accused of failing to ensure regular school attendance for their children came from Ipswich, Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Halesworth and Trimley St Mary, among others.

Last night, a Suffolk County Council spokesman said: “Ensuring children attend school during term-time is imperative in raising educational attainment and one of the priorities of our Raising the Bar scheme.

“School headteachers are taking a rigorous approach and making use of Fixed Penalty Notices where other interventions have not worked to get children into schools.

“We are working in partnership with schools to support them in both increasing school attendance and in raising the attainment for all children in Suffolk.”

One Ipswich mum was accused of failing to ensure three children, one aged 11, attended school regularly between April and October last year. A couple from Kessingland faced the same charge for two children between August and October last year.

The outcome of the hearings was not known last night and it was unclear if school term-time holidays - often seen as a major factor in unauthorised absence - was a factor in any of the cases.

Headteachers can only permit term-time absences in “exceptional circumstances”. Before the Government revamp in September 2013, they were able to grant pupil absences for up to 10 days a year for family holidays in “special circumstances”.

Opponents argue poor households struggle to pay for expensive summer holidays as firms put up prices.

Currently, if an absence is unauthorised, local authorities have an obligation to fine parents and enforce legal proceedings on behalf of schools.

Under the current system, parents who take children out of school without permission could face a £60 fine per child, rising to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days.

Those who fail to pay can face prosecution, with a maximum fine, if convicted, of £2,500 or a jail sentence of up to three months.

The Local Government Association has said there are occasions where parents’ requests should be considered, such as religious festivals, weddings, funerals or an “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. Prime Minister David Cameron has previously said that he has “sympathy” for parents struggling financially.

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, who was a parliamentary private secretary under former education secretary Michael Gove, criticised term-time holiday parents.

He said: “The ones who suffer are the children themselves. There is clear evidence that missing even a few days can seriously retard the progress of children in school.

“And the ones who are harmed the most are children from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those with parents who cannot afford holidays at any time, because their education is slowed as other children have to catch up for the time they missed.”

Graham White, secretary of the Suffolk branch of the NUT, said: “Cheaper holidays outside term-time are an economic issue and parents need to decide which is more important.

“Those parents who can only take holidays during a specific time and have no choice on other dates have to decide if they can afford a holiday at that time.

“School staff have a choice of which weeks, not in term-time, they take their holiday in. Some parents clearly view the fine as much less than the saving on holiday cost.”

This newspaper previously revealed the number of Suffolk parents convicted over their child’s school attendance doubled from 149 in 2012/13 to 309 in 2014/15. The number of Fixed Penalty Notices dramatically rose from 256 to 2,736 over the two years.

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