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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 February, 2003, 15:12 GMT
Truancy mother says daughter bullied
Toni and Tracy Hornsby
Tracy Hornsby (right) says daughter Toni has been bullied
One of the first parents prosecuted under new "fast track" truancy laws has pleaded not guilty - and says her daughter has a "school phobia".

The parents' cases came up at South West Essex Magistrates Court in Grays on Wednesday, where they were charged with not sending their children to school.

The local education authority - Thurrock - is one of nine areas in England trying the new procedures, which can see parents in court within 12 weeks of a child's absence from school if it persists.

Tracy Hornsby, 37, from Millais Place, Tilbury, Essex, pleaded not guilty over the non-attendance of her daughter Toni, 15, at St Chads School.

Adjourned

Mrs Hornsby told the court she wanted her identity and her daughter's to be made public.

She said her daughter had been bullied, and said she would provide medical evidence that her daughter had a school phobia.

She said: "I feel Thurrock Council and the education department have let my daughter down badly as regards her education."

The case was adjourned for a pre-trial review on 2 April.

In the other cases of alleged truancy, the court was told two mothers were not well enough to attend.

A 41-year-old mother pleaded not guilty to failing to send one child to school, claiming her child also suffered from bullying and phobias.

One father did not appear, two sets of parents were represented by solicitors who said they would deny the charges, and a 37-year-old father did not enter a plea.

All the cases were adjourned.

New procedure

The government has been pursuing a hard line on truancy.

But the statistics on unauthorised absences have proved stubborn, with more than 50,000 children at any one time missing school - equivalent to 7.5 million school days per year, according to the Department for Education.

So it warned families in October that a new scheme was being tried out.

Nine areas are piloting the "fast track" process, with another 13 joining next month and, it is intended, all areas using the procedure from next autumn.

Under the scheme, parents are given 12 weeks - a school term - to improve their children's attendance or face a court summons.

Child-centred policy

Sandra Fletcher, Thurrock Council's principal education officer, said she was disappointed the cases had not been dealt with in one sitting of the court.

Mrs Fletcher, who represented the council in court, said she had not expected people to plead "not guilty".

She would be talking to the Department for Education and the Home Office to see what improvements could be made in future fast-track cases.

She said the council's policy in general was to prosecute parents only as a last resort.

The head of one of the schools concerned, John King of Gable Hall School in Thurrock, said the main issue was the children's welfare.

"We can get the child back into school as fast as we possibly can," he said.

"Their education is vitally important to them, to us as a school, and so long as we get the child back with us we can secure their future and that is our primary concern."


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's James Westhead
"Parents and pupils have been given a clear warning"



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Truancy 'fast track'
26 Feb 03  |  Education


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