Don’t Blame The Parents

    The government’s attitude and approach to school attendance has
    become more punitive in recent years. Education-related penalty
    notices – which fine parents or threaten them with imprisonment for
    allowing their children to truant from school – were introduced
    early last year. When it became clear towards the end of 2004 that
    only a handful of local authorities had chosen to use this new
    power, the Department for Education and Skills intervened, asking
    all chief education officers in England to ensure they had a local
    penalty notice procedure in place by the end of the year.

    Unfortunately, the assumption behind this coercive approach is that
    irresponsible parents are the root cause of truancy – and by
    default, the root cause of low educational achievement. All its
    potential consequences – lives blighted by poverty, antisocial
    behaviour and crime – are laid at the parental door.

    The tradition of blaming parents has persisted among educators and
    politicians for many generations, and it remains a strong
    ideological justification for today’s “quick-fix” punitive measures
    to address social problems.

    Of course, the link between low educational achievement and
    criminal behaviour is not new. In 1807, during the debate of a plan
    for the Education of the Poor, parliamentarian Whitebread advised
    people to “search the Newgate calendarÉ the great majority of
    the executed in London every year were Irish; the next in order
    were English, and last Scots. This was in exact proportion with
    their respective systems of education among the lower

    Yet many commentators and parliamentarians have questioned whether
    “irresponsible” parents – who are often poor and ill-educated
    themselves – are best placed to ensure their children receive a
    suitable education. Recent research and historical evidence
    suggests that punishing parents in an attempt to address truancy is
    doomed to failure.(1) In fact, my research finds no direct or
    secondary effects of parental prosecution on truancy rates
    whatsoever. Rather, it suggests that the major hindrances to
    universal education have, throughout history, been poverty, child
    labour, class prejudice and religious bigotry.

    If you look back, there was no formal schooling for the poor until
    the early 17th century, when Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex was
    founded. The school was set up on the orders of Edward IV after he
    was moved by a sermon by Bishop Ridley which described the
    desperate conditions in which poor street children were

    The foundation of Christ’s Hospital was exceptional. Poverty has
    always been a major barrier to children’s access to education – and
    little has changed in the past century. In the 1870s, a major part
    of the parliamentary investigation into the living conditions of
    working-class families in London was based on the records of school
    boards’ attendance officers, who witnessed the widespread poverty
    while enforcing school attendance. Their reports also made it clear
    just how much of a barrier child labour was to universal education.
    Deprivation often made it imperative for children from poor
    families to earn, rather than learn.

    Ironically, educating the poor has not always been acceptable in
    British society. Initially, the poor were fined for sending their
    children to school. After the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the lower
    orders’ demand for education became so overwhelming that a petition
    was presented by the Commons to Richard II in 1391. It asked the
    king to forbid “villains” (from the original word meaning
    “villagers”) from sending their children to school.(3)

    Nevertheless, over the past 100 years, the barrier to the poor’s
    access to education has no longer been the overt rejection of the
    lower orders’ admission to schools, but schools’ “snobbish”
    curriculum. For generations, an elitist curriculum served the
    interests of the privileged few, in effect fostering an
    “anti-school” culture among the children of the working class. This
    remains a problem in today’s comprehensive schooling system.

    Before the introduction of compulsory education, the contribution
    that the churches made to education was unquestionable. Among them,
    the Church of England was a dominant provider of school places.
    Even at the end of the 19th century, three-fifths of the available
    places in schools were in Church of England schools.

    Paradoxically, it was exactly this dominance that drove the Church
    to resist the introduction of compulsory education. The Church’s
    resistance to the possibility of a state-controlled schooling
    system forced legislators to be cautious.

    Also, as an unintended consequence, the Anglican bias among the
    lawmakers caused resentment and mistrust among other religious
    bodies. In response to pressure from the Anglican Church, Sir James
    Graham’s Factory Bill in 1843 included an education clause,
    specifying that schools for factory children should have Anglican
    teachers and religious instruction. In fact, this clause would have
    introduced the first legal requirement for every child to receive a
    school education. However, the Anglican bias stirred opposition
    from other religious groups which eventually forced Graham to drop
    the education clause altogether. Its abandonment was typical of
    religious bigotry’s negative effects on the advancement of popular
    education in England. Mistrust among religious groups delayed the
    introduction of full-scale mass education for a further 35

    So what now? Although “irresponsible parents” have traditionally
    been blamed for their children’s educational failure, there is no
    evidence to suggest it is the most significant factor hindering
    poor children’s access to education. The late E G West, despite his
    controversial argument against any state school system, reminded us
    not to mistake poor parenting for the root cause of children’s
    educational failure.(4)

    He wrote: “The choice between food and education in these
    circumstances is not normally lightly made by anybody. If the state
    does decide to intervene in such cases, therefore, it cannot be on
    the grounds of the same sort of protection as that directed against
    physical aggression of any kind; the intervention called for will
    largely be to counteract not irresponsibility but poverty.”
    Recent research has reinforced the significance of the link between
    low school attendance and poverty.(5) And the state must accept
    that truancy is a complicated social problem. If the government
    wishes to achieve maximum school attendance, it must overcome
    deprivation and poverty.

    Lastly, if our aim is to achieve a genuinely sustainable and
    accessible mass education, investment and improvement in the
    preventive and front-line supporting agencies, such as early years
    services and education welfare services, are an urgent task.
    Constantly creating agencies, such as Connexions, and inventing
    “initiatives”, such as on-the-spot fines, will neither bring about
    more genuine support for children and families nor help to achieve
    better school attendance.

    This article derives from current research into
    British compulsory education. The author draws on historical
    evidence identifying poverty, child labour, class prejudice and
    religious bigotry as the major hindrances to mass education. He
    argues that relying on coercive measures such as issuing penalty
    notices to tackle truancy will fail to address the real issues, and
    therefore will not help to improve school attendance.

    (1) M Zhang, “Time to change truancy laws? –
    compulsory education, its origin and modern dilemma”, Pastoral Care
    in Education, Blackwell Publications, 2004
    (2) S J Curtis, History of Education in Great Britain, University
    Tutorial Press, 1968
    (3) A F Leach, English Schools at the Reformation, Constable,
    (4) E G West, Education and the State: A Study in Political
    Economy, Liberty Fund, 1994
    (5) M Zhang, “Truanting truth”, 0-19, 2002

    J Reeves, Recollections of a School Attendance
    Officer, British Library Photocopy of University of Hull’s Single
    Collection, 1913


    The Education Department
    Guildhall 2
    Kingston upon Thames
    Surrey KT1 1EU

    Ming Zhang is principal education welfare officer for
    the Royal Borough of Kingston’s local education authority. Zhang is
    also a part-time researcher at Magdalene College, University of
    Cambridge. He is currently researching British compulsory education
    while writing regularly on truancy and compulsory education.

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