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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 21:00 GMT 22:00 UK
Truancy prosecutions dropped
A council has dropped its truancy prosecutions against three families, which were among the first brought under the new "fast track" process in England.

Thurrock education authority in Essex said that in each case, the parents had now produced psychologists' reports explaining why their children were not in school.

One mother said she had felt sick at the prospect of being in court and possibly going to jail, and breathed "a sigh of relief" that it was over.

The cases first came to court in February along with those against five other families, almost all of which were adjourned with some parents pleading not guilty and others simply not turning up.

The education authority withdrew the three cases when they came up again in court on Wednesday.

It said a psychological report explaining why a child was not at school was a defence to prosecution under the Education Act.

Help and support

A spokesperson said that, at the outset of such cases, "if bullying or any kind of psychological reason was brought up by parents we will say that, if you can provide us with evidence, there is no way any court action will be taken".

Government anti-truancy campaign
"Not there, not learning" is the official line
She said this involved "simply a case of a trip to the doctor's" to get a referral to a psychologist - but that was not something the education authority would arrange.

"In these cases no evidence was provided and the help and support offered was not taken advantage of," she said.

"Taking them to court really is a last resort."

The cases involved a husband and wife, and two single parents, and their four children who were of various ages. Court orders prevent the identification of the children.

'Bullied'

The wife told BBC News her two children, a boy of 12 and a girl of 14, had been bullied and even beaten up at school.

She denied that the council had offered to help.

The psychologist's report on her son said his refusal to attend school arose "out of a history of bullying and his experience of being bullied in and out of school".

The mother said the government should try to help families like hers rather than taking them to court.

Her children had been fearful of being taken into care if their parents were jailed. She said they would rather have died.

'Success'

Of the other cases brought by Thurrock that did go ahead, sentences included absolute or conditional discharges, a parenting order, a 200 fine and orders to pay costs.

The maximum possible sentence for failing to assure a child's attendance at school is a 2,500 fine or three months in jail.

Fast track has been introduced as a way of regularising the way England's 150 education authorities deal with truancy.

Essentially it gives parents 12 weeks to improve their child's attendance or find themselves in court.

Thurrock said it regarded the process as a success.

Earlier this month, figures produced by the Department for Education indicated that in a majority of almost 1,500 "fast track" cases in 21 areas, children had returned to school and prosecutions had been unnecessary.

As a result, ministers said the scheme was working well. It is being rolled out across the country.

The general secretary of the National Association of head Teachers, David Hart, said he still thought prosecutions were a necessary deterrent.

Children who played truant were being condemned to a life of unemployment and crime, he said.

'Special needs'

But the Advisory Centre for Education, a charity that advises parents of children having difficulties at school, said it felt prosecution should be "the very last resort".

"As these Essex cases show the reasons that a child does not attend school are usually far more complex than simply 'bunking off'," said the centre's advice line co-ordinator, Susan Rees.

The root of the problem was often a failure to meet a child's special needs.

"A 14 year old who has poor reading and literacy skills simply cannot follow the lessons unless the language is simplified and the curriculum altered to meet their individual needs.

"They feel stupid, embarrassed or often bored when the lessons are meaningless to them."

They could become "school phobic" if their teachers did not understand how difficult lessons were for them.

She added: "Research has shown that prosecutions may work in the younger age group but even so investigation should be made to establish the underlying reason for the non-attendance."




SEE ALSO:
Truancy crackdown 'paying off'
02 Jul 03  |  Education
Q&A: Truancy 'fast track'
26 Feb 03  |  Education
Family holiday 'truants' targeted
23 Feb 03  |  Education
Heads could fine parents of truants
12 Dec 02  |  Education


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