New Peterborough term dates considered as fines for unauthorised child absences hits 1,500 in a year

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Peterborough City Council news from the Peterborough Telegraph - peterboroughtoday.co.uk, @peterboroughtel on Twitter, Facebook.com/peterboroughtoday
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New term dates which would allow parents to take their children on cheaper holidays are being looked into by Peterborough City Council after the number of Penalty Notices for unauthorised school absences hit 1,500 in a year.

Jonathan Lewis, the council’s service director: education, resources and corporate property, expressed sympathy with parents who want to go on holiday when it less expensive, but he made it clear that “children learn being in school.”

Mr Lewis was questioned for an hour by councillors, during which time he time he said Peterborough had bucked the national trend by having 80 per cent of schools rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

He also claimed that pupils at Voyager Academy, which is in special measures, are not getting the education they deserve.

A shortage of teachers for subjects such as chemistry, maths and English were discussed at the meeting, as was the lack of governors at some schools, while it was revealed that the number of expulsions at Peterborough schools had reduced to 17 in the past year, although nearly half of these were at Voyager.

There was encouraging news about the number of 16-year-olds not in employment, education or training (NEETs) which is now close to the 5 per cent target.

But Mr Lewis’ annual report said the council could not provide a surplus of five per cent for places in all year groups, as recommended by the government.

Instead, the council seeks a surplus of two per cent of places, although in reception and year 10 this is not being met.

Mr Lewis was questioned at the council’s Creating Opportunities And Tackling Inequalities Scrutiny Committee this evening (Monday, July 20).

On the subject of Penalty Notices, of which 1,510 were handed out in 2014/15, he said: “Children learn being in school 190 days a year and we’ve been hard on it, although I understand the issue with holidays.

“Absences going down is one factor in better results.

“We are considering changing the number of terms.”

The Penalty Notices were handed out for absences of 900 children. Mr Lewis said that it appeared to be the same people who were offending more than once.

A Penalty Notice can be issued for a leave of absence of three consecutive days which has not been authorised or persistant late arrival at school.

Parents are fined £60 per child per parent, so a two parent family with two children would be fined £240.

If a parent fails to pay, the case is passed to the court system for prosecution.

The number of Penalty Notices was 1,312 in 2013/14 and 582 the previous year, before the previous government tightened the rules so schools could only permit absences in exceptional circumstances.

Mr Lewis said it was too early to say whether academies and free schools were producing better results than those run by the council.

But he said bureaucracy had a lot to do with slow progress in Voyager Academy coming out of special measures as it out of his hands.

He said: “There are children going through that school that are not getting the education they deserve.

“I’m offering to help. My teams have been in there to help them.”

Mr Lewis was pleased that the percentage of schools judged good or better by Ofsted increased by the highest percentage nationally.

He said: “It is a lot harder to be good or outstanding than previously. The bar has risen but we’ve bucked the trend.

“We’ve created a mentality that Peterborough needs to improve. I’m still concerned about standards but it’s going in the right direction.

“We’ve got to continue this momentum. I think we will hit my target of 85 per cent good or outstanding schools this year.”

Other discussions at the meeting included Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) reforms in Peterborough which were described by Mr Lewis as “the biggest change to education.”

The reforms, which include allowing parents and their children the right to personal budgets, were said to be progressing and achieving better outcomes for children.

However, it was acknowledged that the changes had been big for parents, but that on the whole they were pleased with them.

Councillors were also told that the back-log for children needing mental health services would be cleared by April next year with £600,000 of funding every year and £150,000 in a one-off boost.

The annual report into children and safeguarding again highlighted a difficulty in recruiting social workers, while there is a continuing high number of contacts (800-900) each month which the council has to respond to.

View: the agenda reports