PARENTS whose children play truant from school are being handed fines of as little as 16p a day, The Journal can reveal.
Pupils across the North East have skipped thousands of days of school over the last two years.
Labour introduced fines for the parents of truants in 2004 to penalise those who do not encourage their children to attend school.
But some have questioned whether the scale of fines handed down by magistrates is enough of a deterrent.
The Journal requested figures for the number of fines given out over the past two years under the Freedom of Information Act.
Fines were sometimes handed out part way through a year, meaning magistrates would not always be aware of the full scale of truancy when they gave the punishment. But if they reflected the number of days missed across the year, at least 22 fines in the North East would amount to less than £1 for each day a child missed school.
In Sunderland, the lowest fine in the 2010-11 academic year amounted to 20p for every day of school missed.
But some fines were much higher – one was the equivalent of £6.48 a day.
Mike Foster, executive deputy director of children’s services at Sunderland City Council, said: “The levels of fines imposed on families by the magistrates courts for allowing unauthorised absence from school is determined based on family economic circumstances.”
The lowest fine in Gateshead was just 21p a day for a child who skipped 310 days of school in 2009-10.
A £15 victim surcharge and £50 of costs were also granted. The fine did not reflect the full scale of truancy as it was given out a few months before the school year ended.
A total of seven fines in the borough were under £1 a day, but one was as high as £10.50 a day.
Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead, said: “After months and months of input, work and real effort on behalf of education welfare officers, for magistrates to be handing down derisory fines and in some cases conditional discharges, it’s a slap in the face for the authority and it’s a slap in the face for the concept of education being the best way out for youngsters.”
Margaret Whellans, strategic director for learning and children at Gateshead Council, said: “The low levels of fines imposed by the courts can be frustrating at times, but we recognise that magistrates themselves are restricted by their own sentencing guidelines.”
The lowest fine was in Darlington, where a parent was called before magistrates after their three children played truant.
Even though the children collectively missed 800 days of school, magistrates gave a £50 fine per child – the equivalent of 16p a day.
A Darlington Borough Council spokeswoman said: “We consider that the prosecution is a deterrent in itself.”
Other punishments in the three boroughs included conditional discharges, community orders, suspended prison sentences and parenting classes.
Richard Monkhouse, deputy chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “We can’t get blood out of a stone.
“No two cases are the same. The difficulty is knowing the reason behind the non-attendance, how much collusion there has been by parents, how much involvement there has been and whether there has been negotiation with the school.
“If a family is on benefits, our hands are very much tied. We could go up to a Band C fine, which is still only one and a half times weekly income.”
He added that if a parent pleaded guilty, their fine was automatically cut by a third.
Nick Seaton, Northern spokesman for the Campaign for Real Education, added: “Any sanctions against persistent truancy should be very, very strict and serious otherwise they’re a waste of time.”
The three councils were the only ones to provide the figures after our request, meaning the total number of fines is likely to have been higher.
Newcastle said it was not possible to link the number of days missed to their figures for fines.
Durham and North Tyneside councils said it would take too long to provide the information.