By David Spereall, local democracy reporting service
Government plans to crack down hard on parents whose children aren’t in school have been criticised by a West Leeds councillor as a “massive stick” which “won’t help” improve attendance.
Labour councillor Hannah Bithell said the proposals, which could be introduced as part of the new Schools Bill going through Parliament, would simply add to the woes of troubled families.
Under the plans as they stand, parents could face penalties if their child is absent from school for five days without adequate explanation.
The government’s intention is to end a “postcode lottery” system, as councils across the country have different thresholds before fines are imposed.
But Cllr Bithell said fines of up to £2,500 and up to three months in prison for offending parents were too heavy.
Speaking at a council scrutiny committee on Wednesday, Councillor Bithell described the Schools Bill as a whole as a “monstrosity”.
She added: “I wanted to flag my devastation around the increase in fines. You’d hope imprisonment wouldn’t be used, but you never know.
“We know how difficult it is to get some young people into school. This massive stick for parents isn’t going to help.
“What are we as an authority, with our stripped back funds, going to be able to do to make sure our families don’t end up in thousands of pounds of debt, as well as with children who are struggling to get educated?”
Councillors were told that the harshest punishments would only be imposed on parents who refuse to account for how their child is being educated.
At present, parents who elect to take their children out of school and educate them at home don’t have to inform their local authority.
But under the new Schools Bill, they’ll have to provide evidence demonstrating their child is being suitably educated. Councils will also be told to keep a register of all pupils being taught outside the schools system, though Leeds already does this.
Another part of the proposed legislation could see local authorities given new powers to force schools under its control to become academies.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and Cabinet member for education, said such powers would never be used on his watch.
“I don’t consider it my place to be putting academy orders on schools and forcing them to convert,” he said.
Councillor Pryor said that just over 88 per cent of Leeds primary schools, including academies, are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
That figure rises to 95 per cent when only council-maintained schools are taken into account.
Councillor Pryor added: “There isn’t an argument, I believe, that automatic conversion improves a school.
“Of course good schoolls can be academies or local authority-maintained schools.
“But I’d reiterate my previous point that it’s our role to support schools that want to remain under the control of the local authority.”
The passage of the government’s flagship schools bill has been delayed by the new government amid a review of current reforms, Schools Week is reporting.
The third reading of the bill in the House of Lords, which was due to take place next Wednesday, has now been postponed to a date “to be announced”, according to Parliament’s website.