‘That’ll teach them’

Education professionals are scornful of the government’s
plan to enable schools to fine the parents of truants, reports Mark

The problem of truancy simply refuses to go away. Despite
£650m spent on anti-truancy measures over the past six years
and a recent rash of hard-line initiatives, including police-led
truancy sweeps and the threat of fines or imprisonment for the
parents of recalcitrant truants, there is little evidence that any
fewer children are bunking off school

In fact, according to a Conservative Party analysis of the
government’s own figures, the number of children deliberately
skipping school has risen by 15 per cent in the past six years.
More than a million children played truant last year, claims shadow
education secretary Damian Green.

The Department for Education and Skills rejects this analysis as
Tory spin on a “complex issue”. However, the policy of punishing
parents for the behaviour of their truanting offspring remains far
from convincing. As highlighted by the research of Kingston upon
Thames’s principal education welfare officer Ming Zhang (see
page 12), the threat of legal action appears to have little effect
on parents’ ability to ensure their child remains in

But the government seems determined to increase the use of the
criminal law to clamp down on truancy. Nowhere is this
determination more apparent than in the Antisocial Behaviour Bill
currently going through parliament. This will give unprecedented
new powers to head teachers and educational welfare officers to
issue fixed penalty notices to the parents of children who

The prospect of head teachers dispensing truancy tickets like
educational traffic wardens appears to have horrified

teachers’ unions, education social workers and
children’s charities alike.

“It’s unnecessary,” says Jacqui Newvell, a former
Education Welfare Officer who now heads the NCB’s Pupil
Inclusion Unit. “There’s enough legislation in existence at
the moment to deal with truancy, we don’t need any more. If
you look at the results from the government’s more punitive
stance then you have to conclude it’s not working. It
doesn’t make sense to introduce even more measures. I would
also challenge the view that absolute parental authority is
realistic in 2003.”

“My concern is that by taking a such quick and easy route rather
than going through the procedures that are needed for a prosecution
there’s a danger that a proper assessment won’t be
carried out.”

Children’s charities have also expressed their concern at
the proposed policy. “We are very worried by this,” says Terri
Dowty, acting joint co-ordinator of the Children’s Rights
Alliance for England. “For a start there are well-established links
between truancy and poverty, so how does it help to fine a family
that may already be struggling to make ends meet?

“Fixed penalty notices can only exacerbate the hardship and
stress already suffered by the millions of families living in
poverty; a £40 fine may represent a week’s expenditure
on food for a family on income support.”

Dowty points out that any measure that increases a child’s
poverty would breach the United Nations Convention on the Rights of
the Child which obliges the government to guarantee children an
adequate standard of living and protect their economic rights. She
is also concerned that the power to issue spot fines may
irrevocably damage teachers’ relationship with parents. “It
sends out a message that education is no longer a partnership
between the teacher and the family. You don’t fine your

Dowty believes the underlying reasons for truancy are often far
more complicated than poorly enforced parental discipline. It is
these root causes that the government should be addressing rather
than seeking simple solutions through the legal system, she says.
“We should be looking at why education is not fulfilling so many
children’s needs. What is it about school that’s
turning people off? It may be that because of their family’s
situation they feel that education is not relevant to them.”

The National Association of Social Workers in Education – the
organisation for education welfare officers who will be empowered
to issue the fines along with head teachers – passed a motion at
their recent annual conference opposing the proposals.
Teachers’ unions are also against the new powers. The
National Union of Teachers claims the policy will “create and
atmosphere of conflict”, the National Association of Head Teachers
is “not persuaded that heads should enforce the criminal law” and
the Secondary Heads Association is concerned that the measures will
increase heads’ already barely manageable workload.

“Frankly, it’s not the job of a head teacher to be handing
out legal notices,” says Bob Carstairs, assistant general secretary
of the SHA. “Our view is that this is likely to be just more work
for the heads, so we would like to see this particular part of the
bill changed.”

Such a change is still possible. Although the Conservatives did
not oppose the antisocial behaviour bill as it passed its second
reading in the House of Commons in April, shadow home secretary
Oliver Letwin promised to use the committee stages to seek an
amendment to remove the provision for spot fines.

“For the first time in British history and, as far as I can
discover, with no international precedent, we have the mind-numbing
idea that teachers could hand out fixed penalty notices to the
parents of children at their school,” he told the House. “I cannot
imagine how the home secretary imagines that such a provision would
be workable and I hope that we can change it in Committee.”

But even if the power for teachers to issue spot fines does make
it onto the statute books, there is doubt as to whether it will be
widely used. “As things stand I can’t see us using it,” says
Geoff Cooper, head teacher at Weston Road High School in Stafford.
“My initial reaction is that it would be an administrative
nightmare. For instance, what happens if the family refuses to pay
up? Are we going to have to chase up the money?

“Consistency will also be a problem. You will get different
schools applying different criteria as to what constitutes
persistent truancy. There are bound to be appeals against decisions
at some point, so head teachers may find themselves having to go to
court to justify their actions.”

Above all, Cooper believes that new legal powers to tackle
truancy would be completely unnecessary if only the existing ones
were properly enforced. Parents of persistent truants already face
fines of up to £2,500 or up to three months in prison. In
practice, however, magistrates often seem reluctant to enforce such
strict penalties. This reluctance can undermine all the efforts of
the teachers and education welfare officers, claims Cooper.

“Unfortunately, the magistrates don’t seem to appreciate
the amount of work that goes on before the parents arrive in court.
We go through an immense amount of work with the [truanting] pupil
and their parents before it comes to the point where we have to say
we are going nowhere and our only option is to take the parents to
court.” It is then a little dispiriting to see the parents let off
with a conditional discharge, he says.

Of course, it is possible that a fixed penalty notice for
truancy could help avoid such disappointments by allowing schools
to bypass the courts and impose their fines directly.
Alternatively, it may be that, as claimed by the Secondary Heads
Association’s deputy general secretary Martin Ward, the
proposal for spot fines is simply a “grandstand policy” designed by
the government to win headlines.

Certainly the fines have few supporters outside the government.
Head teachers and education welfare officers don’t want them,
the unions oppose them and children’s charities have
condemned them. And without the backing of the professionals
charged with implementing it, there is a big question mark over how
much difference the new law will make.

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