The wrong answer

Young people tell Kate Coxon that showing pupils the economic
downside of truanting would be far more effective than jailing

The government white paper, Respect and Responsibility, which
looks to tackle antisocial behaviour, has been criticised for its
heavy-handed approach towards children who miss school and their
parents. Under the proposals, schools and local education
authorities (LEAs) will be given powers to ask parents who have
failed to secure their child’s attendance to sign parenting
contracts. Refusal to sign or breach of the contract may result in
a fixed penalty notice or prosecution or a court-imposed parenting
order. Designated LEA and school staff, and police officers will
have powers to issue fixed penalty notices to parents who condone
or ignore truancy.

There is little evidence that the white paper has taken into
account the views of children and young people. The four year eight
pupils I met with to discuss the proposals in the white paper
relating to truancy felt this was wrong.

Children miss school for a range of reasons. “Some of the kids
who skive do it because it looks cool,” says Jasmine, a 13 year
old, who is also a school council representative and member of her
city’s Youth Forum. But just as often, she says, they do it
because of family or personal problems. “Last week one boy in my
class skived off. He’d just found out that his mum had cancer
and he was too upset. And there was a girl in our school who used
to miss three, maybe four days a week and it was because her dad
was beating up her mum and sometimes he’d hit her too. She
didn’t come until her bruises and cuts had cleared up.”

“It’s also different, what they do when they bunk off,”
says another pupil, Nadina. “Some kids just go round the other
schools yelling and banging on windows, or they go and smoke in the
fields. If they don’t go to school because say they’re
doing a protest against the war, that’s different because
it’s worthwhile.”

Taking a “sickie” with a parent’s permission was
acknowledged to be far more common than bunking off directly from
school. “I would just be too scared to bunk off,” says Nadina. “If
my mum or dad found out I’d be in big trouble.”

Another child says: “I sometimes say I’m ill when
I’m not and then I just stay at home and watch telly”. All
four said they did this from time to time, but say it
wouldn’t be fair if their parents were blamed – “they think
we really are ill,” says one.

“I miss the end of the summer term every year – my mum takes us
on holiday before term finishes because that’s when
it’s cheapest. We’ve just been trying to book a holiday
and it’s £99 in early July and a £1,000 in August.
My mum was gobsmacked. I hope the government aren’t going to
be too strict on that. There should be some flexibility – some
people just can’t afford to go in the school holidays,” says
one young person.

Existing measures within the schools to check up on young people
were considered to be effective in most cases. “Skiving used to be
a bigger problem in our school, but we have a new head and when she
came in she introduced a new law on registrations. We have
registration at every lesson now and it’s much harder.
It’s really obvious if you’re not there,” says

“Also, the risk of getting caught is bigger now. If you go into
town you have to get changed because the shop security guards know
the uniforms and they ring the school, and you get into really big
trouble. You can’t go round the shops anymore – you just have
to sit in alleyways and that’s boring,” says James, aged

The white paper places a great deal of emphasis on the
responsibilities of parents, placing sanctions on parents if their
children do not comply with orders to attend school. But the young
people I spoke to feel that parents should not be held to

“Most parents just don’t know what their kids do. I feel
really sorry for them if they get punished for what their children
do. Even if the parents had to go to court or even go to prison, I
don’t think it would make too much difference to what the
kids do.”

Another agrees: “There’s this girl in our school, she
skives a lot, and they keep sending her letters and stuff but she
takes them so her mum never sees them. She forges her mum’s
signature to say that she’s got an appointment. But
that’s not her mum’s fault, you can’t blame her.”
The girl in question, she says, is known to social services. “The
school’s tried punishing her but you can’t do anything.
Parenting contracts and stuff like that aren’t going to

A parent has limited power. “You can drive your child to school,
but he can just walk straight out as soon as you’ve gone and
there’s nothing you can do to stop him,” says Jack, aged

Parenting orders and compulsion to attend parenting courses met
with a mixed response. “I think it could be a good idea but it
depends if the course is good or not. If the children have
emotional problems then it might be a good thing,” says

The overwhelming feeling was that the government has got it
wrong. So what measures would beat truancy? Boarding schools were
mooted as an option for the worst offenders.

One young person cited the example of a character from the TV
soap Home and Away. “She quit school and now she’s got a job
in a salon. All her friends are achieving things and she regrets it
and wants to go back.” Showing children the benefits of an
education and what they can do with it appears to be felt as the
way forward.

“For kids who miss school a lot you should give them jobs to do
to show them how hard it is, to show them that they won’t
have as many choices. So maybe like hairdressing, they should get
them to sweep the floor and wash people’s hair and say to
them, ‘look, anyone can do this, and you don’t earn
much. But if you go to school you can do specialist jobs that earn
you a lot more money’.”

Creative, work-based solutions to social problems? What a shame
the government didn’t consult more widely with young

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.