Record numbers of parents prosecuted over child's truancy
Record numbers of parents are being taken to court over their child's truancy, but LISA SALMON asks teachers and parents whether prosecutions are the best way to deal with the problem.
Millions of school days are missed every term as children play truant, and the number of parents prosecuted for allowing their kids to skip school has reached a record high.
But is punishing the parents for children's absenteeism the best way to reduce truancy?
The latest truancy figures, published by the Department for Education (DfE) in October, showed that about 56,500 primary and secondary pupils were missing from lessons without permission on a typical day in the autumn and spring terms of 2011-12. The levels were similar to the previous year.
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According to recently released Ministry of Justice figures, a total of 12,777 parents in England and Wales were prosecuted for failing to ensure their children attended school in 2011.
This is up from 11,757 prosecutions in 2010, and 11,188 in 2009.
Of those taken to court in 2011, 9,836 were found guilty and sentenced – a rise of 7.5 per cent from the previous year.
Around two-thirds of those convicted – 6,438 people – were fined, 2,543 were given a conditional discharge and 154 were given an absolute discharge. The rest got either a community sentence or a suspended sentence, or were dealt with in another way.
The DfE says children must get a full-time education that meets their needs, and if a child is unexpectedly missing from school and the local council thinks they are not being educated at home, parents will be contacted by an educational welfare officer – even if a child is only missing for a day.
Headteachers can impose a £60 penalty notice on parents for their child's absenteeism, rising to £120 if the fine is not paid quickly. The penalty notices are used as an early intervention, and an alternative to prosecution.
The DfE says: "You can be prosecuted if you don't give your child an education.
"You'll normally get warnings and offers of help from the local council first."
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) says there is now a high level of attendance in schools, with strong accountability measures such as electronic systems that monitor both attendance in school and during lessons.
Prosecuting a parent for their child's truancy "would be seen as a very last resort," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the ASCL.
However, Alison Ryan, education policy adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, questions whether penalising parents gets children back in school.
"The effectiveness of that hasn't really been proved," she says.
"There's not a massive amount of evidence that shows punitive measures work particularly well, and the risk is that a child might come to school but not be engaged there."
She points out that it is crucial for schools to engage children so they want to attend, and for schools to be able to do that, the child needs to have a stable home environment.
She says: "Children need a home environment that means when they come to school they can get on and learn, and there are plenty of children and young people who come from environments where that is very difficult."