PARENTS who allow their children to illegally skip school are escaping financial punishment, with fewer fines issued in Oxfordshire than anywhere else in the South East.

New figures show headteachers have shied away from penalising parents of truants, despite rising unauthorised absences resulting in thousands of missed days.

Disciplinary policy appears to be a postcode lottery, with schools in some counties demanding thousands of fines from parents, while others requested none.

Oxfordshire County Council dished out the fewest fines of all South East authorities in the last academic year - just 78 - and took no parents to court.

A council spokesman said: “The relationship between use of fines and absence rates as a whole is far from clear.

“Areas where large numbers of fines are being issued have not necessarily seen a significant improvement in absence figures.

“The council always seeks to work with schools and families to improve attendance.”

The Department for Education statistics reveal that neighbouring counties took a harsher approach.

Buckinghamshire, which is home to a similar number of pupils, issued 1,482 fines, while East Sussex, which has almost 20,000 fewer pupils, issued 2,115.

Parents can be fined £60 if their child fails to turn up for school, which rises to £120 if left unpaid within 21 days.

If they refuse to pay, parents can be taken to court and prosecuted, facing a fine of up to £2,500 or up to three months in jail.

Absences can be authorised by schools including for funerals and illness, but others are classed as unauthorised.

As reported in December, pupils in the county missed 80,546 days in the autumn and spring terms of 2016/17 due to unauthorised absence.

The council only issues fines at the request of schools, but headteachers in Oxfordshire have instead favoured parental contracts.

These are documents in which the parent voluntarily agrees to certain measures, such as ensuring their child’s attendance improves.

The council issued 1,147 parental contracts to tackle truancy in 2016/17 – the second-highest number in the region.

Its spokesman said: “Where intervention is requested by schools, the council typically issues warning notices in the first instance.

“Schools may use parenting contracts as a measure to identify if further support is needed.”

He said this joint approach was more ‘constructive’ and, if improvement is not made, fines are considered.

One reason for rising unauthorised absence are more term-time holidays.

Elle Woodley will fly to Spain next month with her fiancé, 18-month-old son and seven-year-old daughter Phoebe, who will miss seven days at St Edmund’s Catholic Primary School in Abingdon.

Chilton resident Miss Woodley said the holiday cost increased by £2,500 outside of term, and the £60 penalty seemed a small cost in comparison.

But the 27-year-old said Phoebe’s headteacher was ‘really understanding’ and chose not to fine.

Miss Woodley said: “People are struggling money-wise in Oxfordshire and plenty of families have valid reasons.

“You can’t put them all in the same boat. My daughter has good attendance.”

Of parents whose children persistently skip school, she added: “Charging makes things harder, maybe people need support.

“Fining does not help the root of the problem.”

Matthew Watt, headteacher at Tyndale Community School in Cowley, said families with relatives in other continents might take weeks out to visit for a funeral or event.

He said: “We take it case by case. We are trying to work with parents to really establish the importance of attendance.

“Our attendance has been a lot better the more we work with parents rather than just fining. But it’s an ongoing battle.

“It doesn’t matter how educational and amazing the trip is, being out of school has a really strong impact on learning and progress in keeping up with their peers.

“Those children are put at a disadvantage – they are sacrificing that education and there are gaps in their learning.”

He said that had a knock-on impact for teachers who have to invest more time in helping get them back up to speed.