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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 02:03 GMT
Fixed penalty truancy fines begin
parenting class
Parents can be ordered to undergo counselling
Parents of truanting schoolchildren can now be fined up to 100 in a scheme based on fixed penalty parking tickets that has come into force in England.

It is part of a package of measures in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act aimed at badly behaved pupils' parents.

They can be asked to agree to get advice or go on courses to help with their children's behaviour.

The fines are being introduced despite research suggesting many parents do not think prosecuting them works.

Parenting contracts on controlling behaviour - by agreement
Parenting orders - imposed by court
100 fixed penalty notices for truancy

They can be levied by police, education welfare officers or school head teachers.

Also under the new act, magistrates can order recalcitrant parents to undergo counselling.

The Education Minister, Ivan Lewis, said: "Children have a fundamental right to an education, and parents must play their part in supporting the schools by ensuring that their child attends school regularly and behaves well.

"While the vast majority of parents carry out this responsibility effectively, it is a sad fact that a minority do not."

Professional support

He pointed out that on local "truancy sweeps" it was common for half of those out of school without permission to be with their parents.

"Where parents are unable to fulfil their responsibilities, parenting contracts will provide them with the professional support they need and focus on what needs to be done to improve their child's attendance or behaviour.

"However, where parents are simply unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities, it must be right that society demands legal sanctions, and penalty notices for truancy will provide due accountability."

50,000 children not in school on any given day
21% of secondary pupils truant at some stage
average absence: 15 half-day sessions
15% of primary pupils
average absence: eight half days

A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research this week said local authority education welfare service staff felt the most common positive impact of prosecuting parents over truancy was that they were made aware of their responsibilities and the importance of school attendance.

Many felt prosecution was more successful with younger children, because parents had more control over them.

But the actual number of prosecutions increased with children's ages, peaking in Year 10 (approximately age 15) then reducing again in Year 11.

Over half of the parents interviewed felt prosecution did not work. It did not result in better attendance and did nothing to address the reasons why their children were not attending school.

Teacher doubts

They also questioned whether they should be held responsible for their child's behaviour after a certain age, the report said.

A separate survey of 100 head teachers, carried out by the Times Educational Supplement, suggests that only 12 would use them, while 44 would think about it and another 44 said there was no way they would use them.

The deputy general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, Chris Keates, said she was surprised so many would consider using the fines.

Children under 16 registered at a school must attend unless permission given for absence
Although children play truant, parents are responsible for their education, so they are prosecuted
Schools may authorise absence of up to 10 school days a year for holidays, but this is not an automatic entitlement
Children do not have to attend school provided they get "an efficient full-time education", which may be at home

"While fixed penalty notices may be a useful tool in preventing persistent truancy, there are serious questions about whether schools should be administering what is essentially a responsibility of the police," she said.

Existing legislation already lets courts impose parenting orders on parents for their children's truancy.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act means they can also now be related to the children's behaviour, and used on parents of children who have been suspended or expelled from school or been in trouble with the police.

The act can also apply to Wales, but only if the Assembly decides to develop its own regulations.

The education minister there, Jane Davidson, has ruled out the on-the-spot fining, believing "it does not fit in with the Assembly Government's inclusion policies in Wales, and that prosecution should be used very much as a last resort".

The NFER report cites case studies illustrating the sort of problems some families have - and the different outcomes of prosecutions.

These are some, as perceived by education welfare officers:

NC, age 6
Kept off school by her mother because of head lice. Family history of non-attendance: grandparent prosecuted for mother's non-attendance at school.

Mother never in the house when educational welfare officer visited and did not come to meetings although was at home for one meeting. Her relationship with the welfare service was "OK".

Fined 30 plus 70 costs. Did not appear in court.

Turnaround in attendance since prosecution and increase in attainment since her attendance increased. Mother does not want to be prosecuted again.

JP, Year 9
Attendance issues since Year 7. Alleged bullying addressed by school. Parents had a difficult divorce but shared parenting and he lived with both parents during this period. Time for which they were prosecuted he was living with his mother.

Quiet and has difficulties forming friendships. Always had medical reasons for non-attendance. When had problems with one parent would go and live with the other. Sporadic improvements in attendance were not maintained. Older siblings had attendance problems.

Both parents very cooperative, had regular contact with welfare service and attended meetings. Mother saw welfare officer as a friend and therefore upset when she was prosecuted. Father bought a new suit for court appearance. Mother claimed that days son was not attending were the days he was staying with his father. Father accepted that prosecution was inevitable but mother less accepting.

Mother 65 fine and parenting order. Father 200 fine plus costs.

Attendance greatly improved. Neither parent wants to return to court. Had some problems in Year 10 but has a learning mentor for support in school. His parents' appearance in court was the turning point.

Three siblings, Years 9 and 11
SC: 30% attendance and some behavioural issues LC: 15% and "terrible" behaviour. Criminal behaviour and involvement CC 20%, no school problems - had friends and she could do the work.

Family background of transience, domestic violence and prison.

Very little contact with welfare services - frequent change of address, failed to respond to calling cards and phone calls. Friendly when contact is made, but they don't take any action regarding attendance issues. Mother did attend an office interview.

Conditional discharge and 50 costs.

SC made some effort, as did CC but she had domestic care responsibilities so school attendance was not the highest priority. LC made no effort at all.

Following the prosecution, attendance deteriorated for all of them. Also, a younger sibling in Year 6 is exhibiting similar attendance problems. Case will either be taken back as a breach of the conditional discharge, or under a higher offence.

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"Truancy is a national problem that refuses to go away"

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