Debate on whether truancy should be tackled by punishing parents

We asked whether punishing parents was the best way to
tackle truancy.

These are the responses we received:

In general, I agree with penalties for
parents, not least because many keep children out of school for
company, or do not insist the child goes to school. In many cases,
some kind of attendance centre for parents, where they can be
worked with to see the importance of supporting their child’s
schooling, would do more good than fines or imprisonment. However,
the short, sharp shock of imprisonment does work for the kind who
believe that they are untouchable.”

Jacqueline Castles

The articles on truancy in ‘Community Care’
dated 23-29 January (
click here
to read the articles) seem as is so frequently the
case, once again let parents ‘off the hook’. There has never been
any doubt in law that it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure
that their child receives an education.

As someone with nearly 30 years experience of working in
education social work services and education welfare services, I am
frequently struck and dismayed at the reaction by the majority of
parents that the cause of whatever difficulty besetting them is
caused by ‘someone else’. In other words the majority take no
responsibility for dealing with let alone creating their own

Unless children have dysfunctions that can be attributed to
organic causes, then they learn their antisocial behaviour from
somewhere even if it is unintentional. In the case of truancy, it
is so easy for a child to learn from its parent that it can be OK
to miss school sometimes. The parent may be over-sympathetic
towards a child and allows them stay off school. When this is
happening right from infants school, even if it is classified as
‘authorised absence’, the child is learning to devalue

I have even witnessed a parent say to a child that unless they
behave they will be sent to school! In south east London where I
work, there seems to often be a predominantly white, working class
culture that has education too low in its priorities. The vast
majority of serious truants from school are from low socio-economic
backgrounds, and often where the work ethic is weak amongst the

It is too easy to blame the ‘system’ and make excuses for these
people. I see little new is the methods of dealing with truancy.
Like most forms of intervention, there is usually a moderate rate
of success regardless of the methodology. More concentration on the
topic whilst welcome, over many years seems to have had no lasting
impact amongst the most relevant culture groups.

New ideas are often the same old ones laced up with a new
package. Those of us who have been in the business long enough see
the same ideas coming around again. Perhaps for a change we could
start looking at why pupils don’t truant, and why some parents
nearly always get their children into school. They are not always
the middle classes, and parents who have benefited from a good
education or comfortable life even if they are the majority.

Why then do a good number of children from low socio-economic
backgrounds, still attend school regularly and complete their
education with reasonable or good results? As these citizens are
never part of anyone’s client group, I wonder how much we know
about them. Whoever they are, they have the ability to rise above
life’s difficulties. I suspect that we would find a high level of
responsibility taking amongst these people, something they will
have passed on to their children. In other words they have properly
parented their children who have in turn learnt about citizenship,
responsibility and commitment instead of constantly complaining
that their difficulties need to be resolved by someone else.

By all means provide support where it is needed but let us not
promote a culture where some parents never learn that they are the
most influential part of their children’s lives not the school or
their social worker, to whom far too many are eager to pass their

Peter Buteux

Senior Education Social Worker.

Prosecuting parents is perhaps the least
effective strategy for addressing ‘truancy’.

a) ‘Truancy’ is a descriptor that only means what the person
using it wishes it to mean – the term is not to be found in any act
of Parliament, nor any statutory instrument. The confusion created
by the politicised and meaningless categories of authorised and
unauthorised absence has lead to
many political and moral false trails.

b) Young people whose absences are targeted (by a referral to an
education welfare service) are often from social groups already
familiar to social welfare professionals – where the parenting
skills and the resources available within the family are already
under social, financial and other pressures; and the possibility of
prosecution merely places additional pressures on such a

c) Solutions to ‘truancy’ cannot be achieved solely by laying
the blame with parents  – effective, long-term solutions can only
be achieved through system approaches – that  explore how the
system of civic education in England generates absence; what it is
about the content and processes of schooling that leads young
people to vote with their feet.

Systems solutions are less convenient and comfortable than
‘institutionalised intolerance’ towards those for whom the system
does not provide relevant and meaningful services and

David Hoyle

It always amazes me that parents are the ones
that are required to take the brunt of punishment, as a single
parent of four children who attend school (although two have since
left..thank God!). Has it not occurred to schools/education that
they may be the CAUSE of the truancy issues.

My children have moderate hearing loss. I could write a novel on
the issues I have had to deal with, namely the teachers who have no
understanding or experience in any form of disability, who call
children names, humiliate, and criticise etc.

There are issues around bullying, and yes I’m aware the schools
have anti-bullying policies! However, the schools do not put these
into practice. If there is a major issue around trunacy then I feel
that the education department should rethink how it trains its
teachers, and education should be more flexible in its working in
partnership with other agencies and parents. Education
professionals are aware of the power they hold and they on many
occasions abuse it.

Katrina Richardson
Student Social Worker (Mental Health)
Local Community Mental Health Team

I agree that parents or guardians should be
held in some way accountable for failure to make their children
attend school. Incurring the full force of the law appears to be
the only way that parents will adhere to the fundamental
responsibilities they have towards their children’s upbringing.

A huge part of the problem, as I’m sure everyone is aware, is
the huge lack of control that certain parents have over their
children. In turn, children become complacent and have little
regard or respect for the adults who are attempting to bring them
up. There is little doubt that the majority of children who are
currently being “looked after” by local authorities are from one
parent families. There is a great deal of inadequate parenting in
our communities and a law must be brought in which is just as
extreme as the one already commissioned, but which will be
undoubtedly more effective. Parents whose children are continually
truanting or who display unruly behavior, must be given the
opportunity to change the way in which they deal with this problem.
compulsory attendance at appropriate classes which will empower
then to take more of a responsibility towards their children’s
futures is a necessity.

Ian McGookin

May I share my experience as a parent within
the broader framework of social work.

My daughter was ‘a truant’. It was very difficult as a parent to
get her to go to school. I did many things. I would accompany her
every day, to the point where I was often late for work myself. We
discussed  strategies for her coping with school that day and
generally about the problems with her schooling. I knew her
behaviour was not conducive with the standards of the school, but
did what I could as a single parent, yet be at home when she needed

Her poor attendance was always discussed at parent evenings and
I asked to be kept informed of when she did not attend. I requested
a joint approach to solving the problem, however, was only ever
contacted during the usual consultation evenings, where the same
situation was discussed yet again. Of course, I was concerned, my
daughter was unhappy, she was not fulfilling her potential, she was
becoming labelled as a truant. When my daughter eventually
diagnosed past abuse to a teacher (who did nothing immediately), I
actually thought there might be some support from the school or
some other department.
How wrong I was, there was no support available within either
social services or the education department, even though both were
now aware of the issues. Her head of year would not help anymore
because she had not disclosed to him. The deputy head was fantastic
though, and one other teacher. Only two members of staff within the
whole school cared enough to see further than my
daughters ‘attitude’.

They welcomed her in class, even if she had not been in for a
while, were prepared to negotiate, sensitively with her about GCSEs
and study generally. She was interested in other subjects, and
being a bright girl wanted to achieve. I recall one day, that made
my heart go out to her when she tried to go into a maths class and
was told by the teacher, ‘Oh, you have graced us with your presence
have you?? (I heard this from others not immediately from my
daughter, who was understandably upset). My daughter with the help
of the attitude of teachers like this one, developed a severe
school phobia. She also admitted to having struggled for some time
due to being bullied by older girls who used to spit on her and
call her a ‘slag’ (remember the abuse?).

Following further abortive attempts to negotiate with the
school, the preference was to suspend her (I fought this option
– she needed to strive for normality, and there was nothing else if
she did not attend school, no other education options I was

So, I have come to the point about parent collusion with
truancy. I actually wrote my daughter letters. I supported her on
those days when she walked out of school because she could not
cope, on those days when she looked so ill after a sleepless night,
but became well again after 9am, on those days she looked like she
was ready to fight the world and all its demons, on those days when
she just cried. Should I be punished for the crime committed by a
young man to my daughter? Should I be punished for the abuse from
the older girls, probably brought on by my daughters ‘victim’
behaviour following the attack? Should I be punished for not trying
hard enough? Should I be punished because apart from two others,
there was no-one else for her? Should I be punished for loving my

It makes me angry both as a parent and as a social worker that
there is a culture of blame. Who shall be blamed for truants? This
time it is the parents. Why not allow more workers to help
intervene with those young people who do not attend school, rather
than make scapegoats of the parents?

Punishing parents is not the answer, there is a need to look at
the broader picture.


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