Parents are being held more responsible for their children’s behaviour under this government, Sally Gillen reports
Parenting orders, fines, prison. When it comes to tackling children’s bad behaviour, the government’s attitude is increasingly that parents must pay – sometimes literally. And for those living in one of the areas where parental compensation orders (PCOs) have been introduced the price could be as much as £5,000.
PCOs can be issued against parents of children aged under 10 who have caused damage or harassed people. They are designed to tackle those too young to be given an antisocial behaviour order and have been piloted in 10 areas across England since July.
But although the tough stance taken by the government with some parents may look good to the tabloids, is it ultimately effective?
Hugh Thornbery, director of Children’s Services UK North at children’s charity NCH, predicts that PCOs won’t work and will only increase stress on families, many of whom already struggle financially.
He believes the government’s approach is shallow. “There is a political imperative to be seen to be doing something about that small minority. The government is always anxious that there should be some sort of last resort. We understand that, but if you have a last resort of compulsion it needs to be effective,” he argues.
Even where measures such as parenting orders could be effective and provide much needed help and support for families, the
effect of imposing them as a punishment almost always creates resistance from parents from the outset.
“The evidence suggests to us that the outcome of voluntary engagement in support is likely to be better than that which is enforced. Because, by that stage, people feel they have been labelled a failure so they start with a set of barriers. You do not want your failure displayed,” says Thornbery.
Head of charity 4Children Anne Longfield believes that PCOs have the potential to be valuable if they mean that people who need parenting support are identified, instead of being left to cope alone, but she doesn’t feel they should be the first course of action. “If that’s the way to bring parents into the system and help them, then maybe the end justifies the means,” she argues. But she is clear that it would only be worthwhile if the support is sustained.
Hardline policies such as jailing parents of children who persistently truant have attracted heavy criticism.
Stephen Mason, president of the National Association of Social Workers in Education, says the organisation isn’t in favour of the measure because it is a “retrograde step”.
A decision was made to reintroduce custodial sentences because the government wanted to show that it took poor school attendance very seriously. “[In magistrates courts] parents were dealt with alongside people there for the most trivial offences so there was a feeling it was not being taken seriously.
They wished to send the message that it was and did that by raising the level of the offence,” Mason says.
It is very rare, however, for parents to end up in prison. Magistrates often opt for a community services order instead. “It’s more appropriate than sending them to jail but we could be more constructive because often the tasks that are given are not about improving parenting,” says Mason. He also believes it would be better if such cases were heard in the family court.
“There is no single cause for children being absent, unless you take examples such as medical absence and you may have
a parent who is anxious about their child if they are ill. “The trauma of having a parent separated is likely to be a factor if a parent is jailed. The child may feel guilty because they might have not gone to school because they couldn’t engage with the curriculum and their parent is being punished for that,” he adds.
Pointing to the US, Thornbery says that rather than improving school attendance, measures that penalise parents can have the opposite result. In Wisconsin and New York policies were introduced whereby benefits of parents whose children persistently
truanted were reduced. But instead of encouraging better attendance, more children dropped out altogether.
Not only will punishing parents in this way lead to more stress in the home it could also damage the relationship between parent and child. Mason says it could have repercussions for the child long after they have left school. “Where the relationship is already damaged, you would just compound that and it may have the potential of causing much longer harm and damage so the child misses out on parental support when they have left school and even into their early twenties, which could have social inclusion implications.”
Despite the increasing number of ways in which the government appears to be targeting parents, Di Hart, principal officer
for children in public care at the National Children’s Bureau believes there is an imbalance in its approach.
“The government’s going down quite a confusing route. On one hand children themselves are being punished for their behaviour and on the other so are the parents; so is it the parents’ fault or are the children autonomous? The government is gunning for them all.”
“If you talk to a lot of families, parents will say we know we are losing control, we want help but where is it?”, she adds.
“Only when problems have reached crisis does the government act and then, too often, its response is likely to do more harm than good.”
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