Parents have set up an online petition calling for a local county council to apologise for an “aggressive, condescending, insulting” campaign that aims to reduce unauthorised absences during the school term.
But the adverts, which appeared on bus stops, social media, and local radio, failed to resonate with over 8,000 parents who have now signed a letter claiming the ads are unfit for purpose and “will probably prove to be counterproductive”.
“You are accusing parents of failing their children without any concern for context or appropriateness,” said Ella Lewis from Seaford, who started the petition.
“This is disgusting and offensive and it is even worse when applied to families who are struggling with serious illnesses, traumas and ongoing disabilities and conditions.”
East Sussex County Council distributed the letters to children who had missed at least three days in the first half of the autumn term, which ran from 5 September to 20 October.
Bob Standley, the council’s head of education and inclusion, said: “There’s a perception among some parents that 95% attendance is enough, but this is simply not the case.”
But Lewis says that the slogans used in the campaign - “get a grip, most parents do”, “good reasons for missing school - there are none,” and “don’t be a mug” - are dividing and alienating parents.
The mother explained that a “blind attack” from the council on families whose children miss school is not helping matters.
“Even when you are taking a firm stance on the subject, you need to convince and win the commitment of parents, not bully us into submission,” she said.
East Sussex County Council has told HuffPost UK they will not be taking the adverts down in response to the petition.
“We appreciate this campaign has been controversial in some quarters but we won’t flinch from addressing this extremely serious issue,” a council spokesperson said.
“School attendance levels in East Sussex are simply not good enough.
“The campaign we have been running is not aimed at parents of children who have genuine medical reasons for being absent and we understand it is not always possible to make appointments for essential medical appointments outside of school hours.
The ‘Get A Grip’ campaign explains that the only authorised reasons children may miss school during term time is for religious festivals or a “genuine medical condition” with evidence from a GP or hospital, and this doesn’t include coughs and colds.
They say: “If you child has a non-contagious or minor illness such as a headache or cold, send them to school.”
This is in line with NHS Choices advice, which states: “A child with a minor cough or cold may attend school. If the cold is accompanied by a raised temperature, shivers or drowsiness, the child should stay off school, visit the GP and return to school 24 hours after they start to feel better. If your child has a raised temperature, they shouldn’t attend school.”
If a headteacher questions the legitimacy of the time off, and does not authorise the absence, the school will ask the council to issue a Penalty Notice of £120 per parent for each child.
In June, father John Platt was been found guilty of taking his daughter out of school on an “unauthorised trip” during term time.
The dad, 44, from Isle of Wight, had taken the matter to court after being fined £120 for taking his seven-year-old daughter on a holiday to Disney World in Florida in April 2015.
They saw a sharp increase in the number of unauthorised absences in the county in the last academic year, with the number of lost school days rising from 599,866 days in 2015/16 to 648,186.
And the number of term time absence fines issued to parents has tripled, with the courts handing out more than £27,000 in fixed penalties.