‘Are you his mum? you’re nicked’

Prosecuting parents has made no difference to truancy rates,
reports Ming Zhang. Would prosecuting the truants themselves be
more effective?

Dear rulers… if the government can compel such citizens
as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount
ramparts, and perform other material duties in time of war, how
much more has it a right to compel the people to send their
children to school, because in this case we are warring with the
devil, whose objective it is secretly to exhaust our cities and
principalities of their strong men
.” (Martin Luther,

Nearly 500 years ago, Luther castigated parents who were failing
to send their children to school, and advocated compulsion. It was
more than 350 years before compulsory elementary schooling
education was introduced in England, but education was widespread
before schooling was mandatory and free. By 1870 nearly all
children were receiving some sort of schooling and the country was
enjoying a literacy rate of more than 90 per cent. There was
evidence too that working class people made enormous efforts to get
their children to school.

After researching education among the working-class, the British
economist James Mill, in an 1813 article in the Edinburgh
, wrote:

We can ourselves speak decidedly as to the rapid progress
which the love of education is making among the lower orders in
England. Even around London, in a circle of fifty miles radius,
which is far from the most instructed and virtuous part of the
kingdom, there is hardly a village that has not something of a
school; and not many children of either sex who are not taught more
or less, reading and writing. We have met with families in which,
for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had
been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to
send them to school.

When compulsory education was introduced to Britain and the US,
it was believed that compulsion would be necessary only for one
generation. But Luther’s so called “irresponsible parents” –
reluctant or unable to get their kids to school – are still evident
in the 21st century.

Indeed the introduction of compulsion seems to have made little
difference to school attendance rates. In 1870 before compulsory
education was introduced, the school board in Leeds achieved an
attendance rate of 89 per cent among the children on the school
roll. The attendance returns made in June 2001 indicated that the
attendance rate among Leeds secondary schools was also 89 per cent.
In England and Wales, about 400,000 pupils who should be in school
are absent on any one day. According to the official attendance
returns, about 50,000 of these are so-called “truants” who are away
without the schools’ permission. These rates of unauthorised
absence in the past 10 years have remained stable at around 1 per
cent for secondary schools and 0.5 per cent for primary

The current government in its determination to combat school
absenteeism, has introduced waves of legislation, regulations and
other initiatives – among them the system of fast-track prosecution
of the parents of truants. In a recent study we examined how
effective punishing parents had proved to be in reducing truancy.
The research used comprehensive figures of school attendance and
parental prosecution in England and Wales. Forty-three local
education authorities (LEAs) took part.

The research first examined whether more parental prosecution
resulted in lower truancy rates. The correlation testing was
carried out using LEAs’ average attendance rates and truancy
rates between 1999 and 2002. The result of the testing suggests
that there is no relationship between the number of prosecutions
and the levels of school absenteeism. A correlation co-efficient of
negligible 0.075 (maximum is 1) is recorded, while at least 0.35 is
considered statistically significant.

We then examined the change in attendance rates that occurred in
the LEA areas between 1999 and 2002 in England and Wales. When the
changed values of attendance rates and the prosecution statistics
of 43 LEAs were analysed, it was found that there was no link
between the number of court cases against parents and the
improvement or reduction in school attendance rates. The
correlation coefficients between the two variables are 0.296 for
secondary schools and 0.031 for primary schools. Both are
statistically insignificant, producing no evidence that more
parental prosecution would bring about improvement in school

The obvious message from the research findings is that we should
not rush further into using the courts, fines or imprisoning of
parents in our efforts to combat truancy. In most non-attendance
cases, absenteeism is just a symptom of various entrenched familial
and domestic problems. To address those issues more effectively,
parents should be empowered through professional support. With its
focus on parents’ responsibility for school attendance, the
government must pay more attention to the front-line services and
establish a national standard for services working with children
and families.

But for secondary school pupils at least, it may be a mistake to
target parents. In the UK, children of 10 are criminally liable for
offences committed, although they benefit from consideration of
attenuating circumstances. If secondary school aged pupils – and
even children in the last years of primary school – can be charged
and prosecuted for criminal offences, why is it that our education
laws do not allow young people themselves but only their parents to
be prosecuted for truancy?

Attendance legislation should hold young people responsible for
their own behaviour, including school attendance. When compulsory
education was first introduced in this country, it applied to
children who were below 13 years old. The same attendance
legislation now applies to young people up to 16. Today’s
secondary school pupils mature physically much earlier than their
counterparts 100 years ago, and are also accustomed to making many
more choices and decisions than their predecessors.

We all know that many truants who are absent from their final
stage of schooling are genuinely out of their parents’
control. Serious consideration should be given to amending the
attendance laws in such a way that would allow older truants – not
their parents – to be prosecuted for truancy.

Ming Zhang is principal education officer, education
welfare service, Kingston upon Thames. E-mail:


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