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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 February, 2003, 12:24 GMT
Q&A: Truancy 'fast track'
The first parents prosecuted for their children's truancy under a new "fast track" process in England are appearing in court.

What is this 'fast track'?

A new procedure introduced by the government to iron out inconsistencies in the approaches adopted by different local education authorities.

It is being tried in nine authorities, with another 13 joining next month, and it is intended that all authorities will be using the procedure from next autumn.

The first prosecutions have been brought by Thurrock, which is operating this timetable:

Week 1 school notes first day of absence and parent is contacted. If no satisfactory response after five days school refers case to an education welfare officer.
Week 2 parent formally cautioned
Week 6 improvement? - case returned to school for monitoring; no improvement? - parent will be invited to a meeting and if no good reason given for continuing absences, court date is sought.
Week 8 information sent to the court for summons.
Week 12 court appearance - after which parents, education staff and school continue to work together to ensure full attendance.

What constitutes truancy?

Being absent from school without the school's permission.

Children in the UK do not have to attend school - they can be educated at home, for instance, provided they get "an efficient full-time education" suitable to their age, ability, aptitude and any special needs.

But that is a separate issue: children who are registered on a school's roll do have to attend it.

Children play truant, but it is their parents (or other carers) who are responsible for seeing that they get an education, so it is they who are prosecuted.

Some parents say that whatever they do they cannot stop their children "bunking off". Some children say they do it because they are being bullied.

The government says that in truancy sweeps - when council officers check on children in the street during school hours - many are actually with their parents.

All authorities would say that taking legal action is very much a last resort, to be used when all other attempts to get the children to attend school have failed.

What are the penalties?

The basic offence can lead to a £1,000 fine.

Since March 2001 there has been a more serious offence which requires proof that the parent knew of their child¿s non-attendance and still did nothing.

In such caqses each parent can be fined up to £2,500 for each child - or jailed for up to three months.

When the penalties were increased to this level the Department for Education played down the possible jail sentence.

It said this was essentially a legal technicality to require parents to attend court - and stressed instead the maximum fine.

But in 2002 a mother in Oxfordshire, Patricia Amos, became the first to be jailed over her daughters' persistent truancy.

Sensing that the 60-day sentence (halved on appeal) had served as a useful warning, ministers have since toughened their attitude.

But a previous target of reducing truancy by a third by 2002 completely failed to have any impact on the statistics.

So is truancy rife?

The average number of half days lost due to unauthorised absence - the official measure - is just 0.7%.

This sounds tiny, but the Department for Education says more than 50,000 children at any one time are missing school in England - equivalent to 7.5 million school days per year.

Last year, there were 7,500 prosecutions.

Ministers get exercised about it because persistent truants are unlikely to get decent GCSE results and, therefore, less likely to get jobs and more likely to become involved in crime.

What's this about on-the-spot fines?

An idea ministers came up with last autumn. They are still working out the details but the idea would be that education officials and even head teachers could issue fixed penalty notices, rather like traffic tickets, to recalcitrant parents.

The Conservatives called it a "gimmick" and heads reacted with scepticism.

"I wonder if I'd still be standing as I handed over the notice," one head teacher told us, contemplating the idea of taking on a belligerent father.

But they're talking about fining us if we take the children on holiday?

Taking children out of school during term time is very much frowned upon.

The fact remains, however, that under the current Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations, schools have discretion "to grant leave of absence for purposes of family holidays" in term time, for up to 10 days a year.

Ministers have no intention of changing this. Tony Blair himself famously made use of this facility in the past.

School chairs of governors can also authorise absence beyond those 10 days.

They might not like doing it, but faced with a parent bent on taking a child on holiday, what else are they going to do? Say no, and bump up their school's truancy statistics?

Many parents see nothing wrong with it, and some have no choice because their holiday dates are fixed by their employers.

The travel industry comes in for stick for putting up prices during school holidays.

In publicising the "middle class parents on skiing holidays" issue, the department was just trying to make the point that it is not only dysfunctional families that are in the frame.

One intractable aspect of the problem in some parts of the country - highlighted before though not mentioned in the more recent clampdowns - is families' taking extended leave to visit relatives overseas, especially in the Asian sub-continent or the Caribbean.

Truancy mother says daughter bullied
26 Feb 03  |  Education
Family holiday 'truants' targeted
23 Feb 03  |  Education
Heads could fine parents of truants
12 Dec 02  |  Education
No progress on truancy targets
09 Oct 02  |  Education

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