Don’t Blame The Parents

The government’s attitude and approach to school attendance has
become more punitive in recent years. Education-related penalty
notices – which fine parents or threaten them with imprisonment for
allowing their children to truant from school – were introduced
early last year. When it became clear towards the end of 2004 that
only a handful of local authorities had chosen to use this new
power, the Department for Education and Skills intervened, asking
all chief education officers in England to ensure they had a local
penalty notice procedure in place by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, the assumption behind this coercive approach is that
irresponsible parents are the root cause of truancy – and by
default, the root cause of low educational achievement. All its
potential consequences – lives blighted by poverty, antisocial
behaviour and crime – are laid at the parental door.

The tradition of blaming parents has persisted among educators and
politicians for many generations, and it remains a strong
ideological justification for today’s “quick-fix” punitive measures
to address social problems.

Of course, the link between low educational achievement and
criminal behaviour is not new. In 1807, during the debate of a plan
for the Education of the Poor, parliamentarian Whitebread advised
people to “search the Newgate calendarÉ the great majority of
the executed in London every year were Irish; the next in order
were English, and last Scots. This was in exact proportion with
their respective systems of education among the lower

Yet many commentators and parliamentarians have questioned whether
“irresponsible” parents – who are often poor and ill-educated
themselves – are best placed to ensure their children receive a
suitable education. Recent research and historical evidence
suggests that punishing parents in an attempt to address truancy is
doomed to failure.(1) In fact, my research finds no direct or
secondary effects of parental prosecution on truancy rates
whatsoever. Rather, it suggests that the major hindrances to
universal education have, throughout history, been poverty, child
labour, class prejudice and religious bigotry.

If you look back, there was no formal schooling for the poor until
the early 17th century, when Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex was
founded. The school was set up on the orders of Edward IV after he
was moved by a sermon by Bishop Ridley which described the
desperate conditions in which poor street children were

The foundation of Christ’s Hospital was exceptional. Poverty has
always been a major barrier to children’s access to education – and
little has changed in the past century. In the 1870s, a major part
of the parliamentary investigation into the living conditions of
working-class families in London was based on the records of school
boards’ attendance officers, who witnessed the widespread poverty
while enforcing school attendance. Their reports also made it clear
just how much of a barrier child labour was to universal education.
Deprivation often made it imperative for children from poor
families to earn, rather than learn.

Ironically, educating the poor has not always been acceptable in
British society. Initially, the poor were fined for sending their
children to school. After the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the lower
orders’ demand for education became so overwhelming that a petition
was presented by the Commons to Richard II in 1391. It asked the
king to forbid “villains” (from the original word meaning
“villagers”) from sending their children to school.(3)

Nevertheless, over the past 100 years, the barrier to the poor’s
access to education has no longer been the overt rejection of the
lower orders’ admission to schools, but schools’ “snobbish”
curriculum. For generations, an elitist curriculum served the
interests of the privileged few, in effect fostering an
“anti-school” culture among the children of the working class. This
remains a problem in today’s comprehensive schooling system.

Before the introduction of compulsory education, the contribution
that the churches made to education was unquestionable. Among them,
the Church of England was a dominant provider of school places.
Even at the end of the 19th century, three-fifths of the available
places in schools were in Church of England schools.

Paradoxically, it was exactly this dominance that drove the Church
to resist the introduction of compulsory education. The Church’s
resistance to the possibility of a state-controlled schooling
system forced legislators to be cautious.

Also, as an unintended consequence, the Anglican bias among the
lawmakers caused resentment and mistrust among other religious
bodies. In response to pressure from the Anglican Church, Sir James
Graham’s Factory Bill in 1843 included an education clause,
specifying that schools for factory children should have Anglican
teachers and religious instruction. In fact, this clause would have
introduced the first legal requirement for every child to receive a
school education. However, the Anglican bias stirred opposition
from other religious groups which eventually forced Graham to drop
the education clause altogether. Its abandonment was typical of
religious bigotry’s negative effects on the advancement of popular
education in England. Mistrust among religious groups delayed the
introduction of full-scale mass education for a further 35

So what now? Although “irresponsible parents” have traditionally
been blamed for their children’s educational failure, there is no
evidence to suggest it is the most significant factor hindering
poor children’s access to education. The late E G West, despite his
controversial argument against any state school system, reminded us
not to mistake poor parenting for the root cause of children’s
educational failure.(4)

He wrote: “The choice between food and education in these
circumstances is not normally lightly made by anybody. If the state
does decide to intervene in such cases, therefore, it cannot be on
the grounds of the same sort of protection as that directed against
physical aggression of any kind; the intervention called for will
largely be to counteract not irresponsibility but poverty.”
Recent research has reinforced the significance of the link between
low school attendance and poverty.(5) And the state must accept
that truancy is a complicated social problem. If the government
wishes to achieve maximum school attendance, it must overcome
deprivation and poverty.

Lastly, if our aim is to achieve a genuinely sustainable and
accessible mass education, investment and improvement in the
preventive and front-line supporting agencies, such as early years
services and education welfare services, are an urgent task.
Constantly creating agencies, such as Connexions, and inventing
“initiatives”, such as on-the-spot fines, will neither bring about
more genuine support for children and families nor help to achieve
better school attendance.

This article derives from current research into
British compulsory education. The author draws on historical
evidence identifying poverty, child labour, class prejudice and
religious bigotry as the major hindrances to mass education. He
argues that relying on coercive measures such as issuing penalty
notices to tackle truancy will fail to address the real issues, and
therefore will not help to improve school attendance.

(1) M Zhang, “Time to change truancy laws? –
compulsory education, its origin and modern dilemma”, Pastoral Care
in Education, Blackwell Publications, 2004
(2) S J Curtis, History of Education in Great Britain, University
Tutorial Press, 1968
(3) A F Leach, English Schools at the Reformation, Constable,
(4) E G West, Education and the State: A Study in Political
Economy, Liberty Fund, 1994
(5) M Zhang, “Truanting truth”, 0-19, 2002

J Reeves, Recollections of a School Attendance
Officer, British Library Photocopy of University of Hull’s Single
Collection, 1913


The Education Department
Guildhall 2
Kingston upon Thames
Surrey KT1 1EU

Ming Zhang is principal education welfare officer for
the Royal Borough of Kingston’s local education authority. Zhang is
also a part-time researcher at Magdalene College, University of
Cambridge. He is currently researching British compulsory education
while writing regularly on truancy and compulsory education.

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