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When people argue that sanctions will act as deterrents, they usually hypothesise that the introduction of a sanction will reduce the occurrence of the incidents they seek to deter.

This, presumably, is the theory behind the DFE policy that parents can, and in their view should, be fined for taking their child out of school on a term time holiday, irrespective of the child’s attendance overall.  You may recall that this issue was tested in the Courts last year with the High Court finding that the parent, Jon Platt, had no case to answer for non-payment of school absence fines. Tomorrow (31 January 2017) DFE will be seeking to overturn this judgement in the Supreme Court. 

As someone working in education I know how important it is for learning that children attend school regularly.  My own daughters have frequently been proud recipients of certificates celebrating 100% attendance over a term or a year – although as a working mother I must confess that this has sometimes been as much as my need to get them out of the house so I can go to work as it has been a reflection of their dedication, or mine!

But for all sorts of reasons I feel deeply uncomfortable about the widespread use of fines for all but the most persistent cases of school absence, not least because of doubts about whether fines actually work.   

2013 saw a major change to DFE guidance on authorising absence, removing headteacher discretion to authorise holidays in term time in all but exceptional circumstances.  Since then, as one might expect, the number of fines issued for unauthorised absence has increased dramatically, from 52,370 in 2012/13 to 98,259 in 2013/14 and to 151,125 in 2014/15, the latest year for which information is available. 

So has the increasing use of fines put parents off taking a holiday in term time?    It would appear not.  The latest DFE statistics, published in May 2016, show that between Autumn 2014 and Autumn 2015 the proportion of time lost to term-time holidays remained exactly the same, at 0.3%.

Behavioural economics might help us to understand why.  A famous study by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini looked at the behaviour of the parent collecting their children from day-care in Haifa, Israel.  The day-care centres closed at 4pm. Most parents picked their children up promptly, but each day some parents would be late, relying on the goodwill of the staff to look after their child until they arrived.

An experimental approach saw six of the ten day centres introduce a small fine for parents who were more than ten minutes late, whist the remaining four had no fine.  The effects were not what one might have anticipated. In day centres where the fines were introduced, tardiness increased, with lateness levels settling out at around twice the levels that were seen before the fines were introduced.  No change in lateness was seen at the day centres that did not introduce the fine. 

Why was this?  Dr Gneezy hypothesises that without a fine, parents are concerned about the guilt and embarrassment of having to meet and apologise to the teacher that has been inconvenienced, providing a strong incentive to get to the day centre on time.  The introduction of the fine changes the transaction from a social to a financial one, with parents seeing the payment of a fine as a way of buying an additional service rather than putting out an individual teacher.

It is easy to see parallels with the term-time holiday question.  In a pre-fine era the guilt associated with knowing that their child’s absence may mean additional work for the teacher, or being seen as selfish by other parents, provided a reasonable deterrent.  But with a potential fine in place, parents can reassure themselves that they are ‘paying for the privilege’ of taking their child out of school on term time, and consideration becomes more narrowly financial: is the cost of a term-time holiday plus fine more or less than a holiday during the school break? 

Interestingly the Department for Education have recently been recruiting a team of behavioural scientists. It will be fascinating to see whether and how this team affects the Department’s approach to seeking to change the behaviour of parents, teachers and pupils in future.

Alison Critchley
Chief Executive, RSA Academies

Follow Alison on Twitter @Ali_Critchley

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