When duty calls

Balancing rights with responsibilities sounds pretty simple. Many a
politician has uttered the phrase in an attempt to convey the
social contract that underlies good government.

For New Labour it has been a guiding principle that reinforces its
break with past politics. A balance of rights and responsibilities,
we are told, is preferable both to the convictions of Thatcherism
(which stressed individual economic rights to the exclusion of
social responsibility) and “old” Labour (which stressed social
rights to the exclusion of individual responsibility).

In fact, the concept of reciprocal rights and responsibilities is
as old as democracy itself. But its long history as a guiding
political philosophy does not make it simple to apply in practice,
as the government’s attempts to tackle truancy suggest.

Since the early 1990s when truancy rates began to be recorded,
little progress has been made in preventing unauthorised absence
from school. Truancy rates have remained broadly static; about
50,000 pupils are absent from school without permission each day.

But a barrier to tackling truancy appears to be the attitudes of
parents who are often found to be accompanying truanting pupils who
are stopped in the street. In last summer’s sweeps (intensive
truancy patrols conducted over one month) 83 per cent of primary
school pupils and 26 per cent of secondary school pupils found to
be out of school were accompanied by a parent.

This apparent flouting of parental responsibility can be
overstated. Some children are legally educated outside the school
system. During the truancy sweeps last summer about half of those
pupils stopped who were with a parent were judged to have a good
reason for being out of school. But despite the legitimacy of many
so-called unauthorised absences, it is difficult to escape the
observation that non-co-operation by parents remains a barrier to
reducing truancy.

The question then arises as to whether and how government should
seek to enforce parental responsibility. For many teachers and
education welfare officers the answer to tackling truancy lies in
increasing parents’ awareness of their duty to ensure that their
children attend school. Some argue that sanctions are needed.
Comparatively overlooked is the role of the parent-school
relationship in changing parental attitudes. Schools that have
successfully reduced truancy rates report that forging stronger
relationships with parents is key.

The government has attempted a range of methods to reinforce
parental responsibility in tackling school absence. The
introduction of an offence of “aggravated truancy” came into force
in March 2001, attracting a maximum fine of £2,500 per parent
and imprisonment for up to three months. The first conviction
prompted massive publicity when Banbury magistrates jailed
Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos for allowing her daughters to
truant. The story made news around the world.

The case brought the challenge of reinforcing responsibilities as
well as granting rights to the fore. There was much public debate
about whether the incarceration of a parent for her children’s
truancy, while sending out a strong message about parental
responsibility, was in the best interests of her children.

But criticism of the mother’s jail sentence was drowned out by the
approval of other parents and teachers. Even Amos conceded that the
experience had “brought her to her senses”. School heads reported
(unsubstantiated by evidence) that the publicity helped to send out
a message to other families to think twice before allowing their
children to miss lessons. Such was the impact of the Amos case that
the recent jailing of another (pregnant) mother over Christmas
passed almost without media comment.

It was a different story when the government proposed penalising
parents whose children truant by cutting their benefits. The plan
to take child benefit away from parents of truants was dropped in
the face of public (and ministerial) criticism. Cutting benefits
placed children at risk of poverty. But are jail sentences a more
appropriate way to reinforce parental responsibilities than benefit
sanctions? The logic is hard to fathom.

Public and politicians alike have little by way of a moral compass
to guide decisions about government’s role in ensuring that
citizens meet their duties as well as receive their rights. These
are not decisions that policy-makers can make behind closed doors;
we need more public debate about the responsibilities we owe as
well as the rights we enjoy.

Lisa Harker is deputy director of the Institute for Public
Policy Research.

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