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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Jail threat for truants' parents 'failing'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

Threatening the parents of persistent truants with jail makes no long-term impact on improving attendance, say researchers.

Truancy rates have not fallen despite repeated crackdowns

These families of hard-core truants are often so dysfunctional and have so many "entrenched problems" that prosecution, fines and jail sentences have little chance of changing their behaviour.

The research, which is to be published next month, has been carried out by Ming Zhang, principal education welfare officer at the Kingston upon Thames local education authority.

In an attempt to crackdown on absenteeism, the government has taken a hard line with truants' parents, including the use of fines and jail sentences.

But truancy rates have remained stubbornly high - and Ming Zhang says that his research shows that the tougher message from the courts is not hitting its target.

Using statistics from 43 local authorities in England and Wales, Ming Zhang examined the link between school attendance and parental prosecutions.

This research was designed to find evidence for "the hunch that more parental prosecution would result in lower truancy rates".

Instead, he found that "absolutely no relationship between the number of prosecutions and the levels of school absenteeism".

Even where families promised that a court appearance would be followed by a fresh start, he said that often in a few weeks, previous problems repeated themselves and truancy would begin again.

'Prosecute the children'

In many families, he says truancy is just a symptom of other domestic problems, and that truancy sweeps and prosecutions do not address the root causes.

Patricia Amos
Patricia Amos was sent to jail last year after her children played truant

"The obvious message from the research findings is that we should not rush towards the approach of reliance on more court cases, more fines or even more jailing of truants' parents in our efforts to combat truancy."

Ming Zhang suggests a difficulty facing the courts is that the sanctions and orders they can apply to truants' parents are out of date.

For older truants, he believes that it should be the truant, as well as the parents, who are prosecuted. This would allow the courts to impose restorative measures, such as compulsory education programmes or even enforced fostering orders.

Although he is not proposing that teenage truants should be fined, he says they should take responsibility for their actions - including facing prosecution.

The courts need to be able to provide a direct response to the pupil's behaviour, he says, and they should have flexible powers appropriate to the problem of improving attendance.

The government has found it difficult to make headway with reducing truancy, abandoning a target to cut absenteeism by a third.

Prison sentence

High-profile sweeps, improved registration technology in schools, extra police powers and tougher penalties on parents have all failed to lower the absenteeism rates

The government says that 40% of day-time street crime is caused by truants

Parents can now be fined up to 2,500 per pupil playing truant - or jailed for up to three months.

Last year, a mother in Oxfordshire, Patricia Amos, was imprisoned for failing to ensure that her children attended school. In the immediate aftermath, the local education authority said the surrounding publicity had dramatically reduced truancy.

But Ming Zhang says that the evidence shows there is no long-term improvement when prosecutions are applied.

On Monday, the Conservatives published figures showing that, despite spending 650m on anti-truancy measures in the last six years, the number of pupils missing from school had risen.

This showed that there were 1.1 million pupils who had played truant in the course of the last school year - up from 0.96 million five years before.

An education department spokesperson rejected claims the truancy strategy was not working.

"This is a complex issue which requires a balance of approaches - both support and sanctions," said the spokesperson.

"But children have a right to education and parents have a legal duty to ensure they attend school. We give support to parents who are trying to improve attendance - but where they are unwilling, prosecution must be the final sanction."

The government says that it is to invest another 470m in tackling truancy this autumn.

As well as the educational damage caused by truancy, ministers have also highlighted the strong link between pupils playing truant and street crime - and the initiatives to keep pupils in school were part of the strategy to reduce juvenile crime.

According to official figures, 40% of street crime, 25% of burglaries, 20% of criminal damage and a third of car thefts were carried out by 10 to 16 year olds at times when they should be in school.

Q&A: Truancy 'fast track'
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