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.

By Lisa Salmon

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 around 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.

According to recently released Ministry of Justice figures, in 2011 a total of 12,777 parents in England and Wales were prosecuted for failing to ensure their children attended school.

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% 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're not being educated at home, parents will be contacted by an educational welfare officer - even if a child is only missing for a day.

Head teachers can impose a £60 penalty notice on parents for their child's absenteeism, rising to £120 if the fine isn't paid quickly. The penalty notices are used as an early intervention, and an alternative to prosecution.

The DfE warns: "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's 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," Brian Lightman, general secretary of the ASCL, has said.

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.

"That can cause a whole heap of other issues that teachers have to deal with. You don't just want the kids there, you want them participating and learning and not stopping anyone else from participating and learning."

She points out that it's 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.

"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's very difficult.

"We have to be careful not to say it's the parent's fault. There can be situations where a parent might not be able to cope, or has a chaotic home life or other issues, or they might have the best will in the world but are holding down two or three jobs to cope financially, so they find it difficult to supervise their children and make sure they're doing what they should be doing."

The key, she says, is for parents and schools to work together and involve the child in any dialogue.

It's vital to look at the reasons why a child's truanting, she says, as it may be because there are issues at home, they're being bullied at school, or they're scared of going to school because they're lonely or vulnerable, or even have undiagnosed mental health issues.

"If there's a dialogue between the parent and the school, and hopefully the pupil too, you can determine the reason for the truancy.

"The parent should make sure the school knows exactly what they're doing, and are talking to the child.

"The underlying problem might be beyond the powers of the parent or the school, but if there's a dialogue between them, they can decide who to get involved next."

She adds: "When you have lots of different pressures on schools, and areas where families are finding life difficult, or children who have needs that no one's got to the bottom of, then truancy will always be a factor.

"But schools will never sit back and accept it. They're accountable for their attendance figures and no one takes truancy lightly, as children who truant aren't getting their education, and their life chances decrease."

Margaret Morrissey, founder of the parents' campaign group Parents Outloud, has in the past suggested that benefits for youngsters who play truant should be stopped, and she reiterates: "If they know they're not going to get money to top up their mobile phone because they haven't been to school and mum's child benefit has been cut, it might occupy their mind a bit.

"I know it will make people scream and shout, but if you never have proper deterrents, you're never going to get certain people to stick to the rules."

She says a distinction needs to be made between youngsters who play truant because they have a genuine school phobia and their parents are distressed about getting them to school, and those who are simply determined not to go.

"If you've got a 5ft 9in teenager who says he's not going to school, a mum on her own has a real struggle to make him go, and that's really hard," she says.

Another part of the problem, she points out, is that some schools are so large that teachers can't keep track of who's there and who isn't.

"I don't blame the schools - they're too big and the kids are just lost in them, mostly because they want to be, but they have the opportunity to go on walkabout."

Morrissey isn't convinced that taking parents to court helps the truancy problem either.

"I don't know that convicting parents for their child's truancy is making any difference.

"I think it would be better if we put more effort into finding out why kids are happy to truant - is what they're being offered at school doing nothing for them and they're switching off?

"We should be putting the focus on how we keep those youngsters interested and motivated."

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