Free article: The use of penalty notices: the pros and cons

Published: Thursday, 27 February 2014

Professor Ken Reid examines the use of penalty notices (PNs) since the Children Act 2006, including some discussion on recent developments in Wales and the issue of regional variations in the circumstances that might trigger such penalties.


  • Since the introduction of the Children Act 2006, legal departments within many local authorities (LAs) are increasingly cautious about prosecuting parents.
  • There is considerable regional variation and a lack of consistency in the application of PNs.
  • There is an increasing awareness of the impact on children where penalties are issued against the parents.


If parents or carers fail to send their children to school on a regular basis, they can be prosecuted under the terms of the 1944 and 1996 Education Acts, amongst others. Where children miss school, either because of truancy or persistent absence, parents can face penalties ranging from school attendance orders, education supervision orders and fines (up to £2,500 per child) through to (for regular flouting of the law) jail sentences.

Research into truancy and school absenteeism, however, has consistently shown that no particular form of punishment has proved par-ticularly effective with parents in ensuring that their children return successfully to school and re-integrate on a regular basis once these punitive measures have been implemented. Furthermore, since the advent of the Children Act 2004, obtaining successful prosecutions in court has become even more complicated, with considerable regional and local variations taking place in practice. This is despite the encouragement by the previous Labour administration for local authorities (LAs) and schools to use much quicker ‘fast track’ prosecution processes.

Since the passing of the Children Act, legal departments within LAs are much more cautious about prosecuting parents unless there is a good chance of gaining a conviction. In two LAs with whom I am currently working, there were only two prosecutions of parents last year. By contrast, in a third of LAs, there were 34 prosecutions.

In professional reality, many social work teams within Children’s Services Departments are against parents being fined, jailed or otherwise punished for their child’s non-attendance from school, especially when:

  • There is a range of other family problems or issues involved in the case that may complicate the situation or affect the department’s work with other family members.
  • The parents are already on income support or housing benefit.
  • The court action is against the best interests of the child.
  • There is a danger that the child may end up being taken into care or it leads to a further breakup of the family
  • There are other mitigating factors that need to be taken into account on a family-by-family and/or child-by-child basis.

In fact, a very high percentage of school attendance cases that reach the local magistrate’s court end up being withdrawn at the last moment, adjourned (sometimes with no dates being fixed for further appearances) or dismissed, or the parents may even be given a conditional or absolute discharge. in some parts of the UK, in cases where fines are imposed, as many as 80% can remain unpaid and frequently are written off, often after two years (even when, for example, the payment was fixed at £2.00 per month for the duration). Successive UK governments seem unaware of these facts or have chosen to ignore them. For parents close to the poverty trap, they may end up having to use their state income support money to pay off the fines.

It is for these reasons, amongst others, that many experts and professionals have argued for a long time that the law and punishments on school absenteeism are much too complicated and need to be re-thought and simplified, not least in an era when children and young people are being given greater rights and responsibilities.
More recently, the present coalition government has been promoting the use of PNs for parents of children who are designated as being either truants or persistent absentees, and their usage is gradually increasing. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to using them; some are discussed in this article, others are included in the Toolkits that accompany this piece.

The position in Wales

The position in Wales on the use of PNs is even more confusing. Originally, the previous Labour Government stated clearly that the Welsh Government (WG) should not proceed with the introduction of PNs, in part because of the implications for poorer working class families, from whom most truants and persistent absentees originate. Subsequently, there appeared to have been a change of mind. On August 8 2013, a specially-convened committee, the highest-ranked of all WG committees, issued the Children and Young People Committee Inquiry into on Behaviour and Attendance (bit.lyO31qs7). The committee’s report clearly stated that they could find no support for the introduction of PNs in Wales from a single group of professionals, people or educational bodies from whom they had taken evidence. Their decision not to recommend the introduction of PNs in Wales was unanimous and received full cross-party support.

Since then, the WG has accepted eight of their ten recommendations but decided to go ahead with the introduction of PNs. It is not clear why they have done so or on what basis. However, it is known that that some personnel within the Inclusion and Pupil Support Section of the Depart-ment for Education and Skills (DfES, Wales) have been extremely supportive of a PN policy. At the time of writing, it is still not completely clear as to the long-term potential use of PNs in Wales, nor as to likely developments in the future.

Broader issues

There is a growing belief that some headteachers and LAs in England are being encouraged to make increasing use of PNs. Therefore, in the short term at least, the numbers of PNs issued in England is likely to rise.

There remains a problem over the non-payment of PNs by many parents and/or carers. For example, if parents choose not to pay in accordance with set timescales, the LA is supposed to initiate a prosecution under Section 444 of the Education Act 1996. In reality, this often fails to happen. In such cases, the PN is subsequently withdrawn or just left unenforced.

Some LAs are choosing to impose PNs after pupils have missed only 10 sessions of schooling (five full days). This is the minimal period permitted by the regulations. Others are using them for more serious cases of truancy or persistent absenteeism. Clearly, there are regional, local and school differences within the overall implementation of the PN regulations and inconsistencies within both the existing local and national systems.

In other cases, LAs are issuing warning letters to parents about imposing PNs for their children’s non-attendance at school. Subsequently, for whatever reason, the LAs do not follow up on such threats threat or to impose any fines. The evidence suggests this is particularly prevalent amongst Year 11 pupils.

Given some of these issues, and the regional disparities in applying PNs, some further thought, discussion and clarification is clearly required if fairness and equity are to be introduced into the management of penalties issued against parents for their children’s unauthorised absenteeism from school.


Click to download the first template toolkit document below. Premium and Premium Plus subscribers can download the second template document below from the Toolkit section:

About the author

Professor Ken Reid, OBE, is the author or co-author of over 20 books on education, some 200+ articles in academic journals and was the Chair of the Welsh Government’s National Behaviour and Attendance Review (NBAR). He works regularly with schools and local authorities on improving school attendance. Ken can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

First published on this website in March 2014.

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