Crunching Data: The School Holiday Fines

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A couple of weeks ago my piece of work on school holiday and truancy penalties was broadcast across telly, the wireless and t’internet.

The online story got a humbling 1.2million views and it went out across various national and network stations as well as being followed up by various national newspapers.

I thought I’d share a couple of observations about doing these large scale data pieces. The first involves getting the data in the first place. Although the Government collates and publishes data on parental sanctions for non-attendance, it does not (until this year) break it down into how many penalties are for truancy and how many are for unauthorised term-time holidays.

Probably for that very reason, many local authorities were unable to supply that break down when asked under the Freedom of Information Act (from which my data was built). I am very grateful to those councils which did break it down, as it allowed us a decent glimpse into what absences parents were being fined for. What it revealed was that although the lion’s share of penalties were issued for term time holidays (c61,000 compared with c15,000 for truancy), it also emerged that the number of truancy fines had risen sharply in three years (from about 9,000 to about 15,000).

In terms of the data, we focused on the comparative fining rates (rates per 1,000 pupils) because a simple number of fines by county figure was unlikely to offer much illumination (bigger county populations tend to equal bigger numbers of fines).

For the news website, an interactive map using the data was produced using DB Carto
For the news website, an interactive map using the data was produced using DB Carto

Anybody wanting the raw data to have a play is welcome to it. Visit the BBC England Data Unit page here.

One of the key issues I tend to find with data-led stories is their tendency towards dryness (I’m as guilty as anybody of this in the past).

Enter stage left, David Brain, the father from Bristol who spoke to me about why he was fined last year and how he would happily take another financial hit in the future, if it meant he could take his children away on a good holiday.

I also wondered whether the decision by the Isle of Wight Council, which issues penalties at a higher rate than any other authority, to change its holiday dates might in the future be followed by other councils – particularly those in areas heavily dependent on the tourism economy.


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