Parents of children who play truant will have their child benefit docked if they fail to pay fines, under measures announced by Prime Minister David Cameron.
At present, non-payment of the £60 civil penalty in England leads to it being doubled to £120 after 21 days and subject to prosecution after 28, but 40% still fail to pay and many do not end up in court because councils do not press legal action.
Mr Cameron said tougher action would “tackle the harm truancy does to a child’s chances in life”, citing statistics which show that fewer than 17% of children with 28 days’ absence at key stage four achieve the English baccalaureate, compared with 44% of those who missed no lessons.
The Prime Minister also announced a new right for parents in England to request that schools provide breakfast and after-school clubs or holiday care. Childcare providers will be granted the right to request use of school facilities to operate clubs of this kind.
The child benefit plans, unveiled at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, are expected to “significantly” reduce the legal costs of councils by removing the need to take non-payers in receipt of child benefit to court.
But local authorities will be put under a new duty to pursue penalties through the courts in cases where parents do not receive the benefit because they earn more than £50,000.
Figures obtained earlier this year by the Press Association showed that 16,430 people in England were prosecuted last year for failing to ensure that a child went to school - with around three-quarters (12,479) found guilty. Courts issued 9,214 parents with fines worth an average of £172.
Mr Cameron said: “We are determined to tackle the harm truancy does to a child’s chances in life. There is nothing responsible about allowing your child to go without an education. So for parents who let their child play truant and refuse to pay truancy penalties, we will deduct it from their child benefit.”
Schools will not be obliged to provide holiday care or “wraparound” clubs when asked, but will be required to publish reasons why they do not respond to requests from groups of parents or childcare providers. The right to request will apply to all state-maintained primary schools, as well as new academies and free schools, but head teachers will not have to consider requests to use their sites during school hours or at times when they already operate clubs.
Mr Cameron said the move would increase the supply of childcare places for the offspring of working parents outside school hours, allowing them to work longer hours if they choose to do so.
“Ensuring children get the best start in life is at the heart of our plans,” he said.
“We want to help hard-working parents with their childcare plans, so we will give families the right to request that their schools provide childcare for a full working day, before and after school and during the school holidays.”
Downing Street sources said the childcare proposals would be cost-neutral.