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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Catching truants - and their parents
By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff

police van in alleyway
A boy on a bicycle is pursued down an alley
The truancy van is in town, sweeping through the housing estates and streets.

The sign on the police van tells you what it is. The four-strong team like that - they are visible, sending a message to the community.

It's mid-morning. DC Nick Gregory spots a likely suspect. A slight, hooded figure on a bike that's too small for him darts along the pavement in the rain.

He knows he's been seen and speeds up.

The boy, who looks about 11, whizzes around the corner and disappears down an alley running between rows of houses.

The gap is just big enough for the police mini-bus to fit through.

The chase is on, but there are dozens of possible hiding places along the length of the lane and dozens of other possible truants to check on and this time the child gets away.

Education welfare officer and police officer on doorstep
The team visit homes of children they think are truanting
DC Gregory thinks this boy might be the one whose house the team have just come from.

"We knock on their doors, but sometimes they just leg it out the back," he says.

The team - from the London borough of Kingston - are trawling the streets, armed with a list of names and addresses of children who have not turned up for school this morning.

The morning began with a series of phone calls to schools to find out which of the serial truanters are not where they should be. If parents or children have not called the school to say they won't be in, the children go on the list.

Get into your uniforms - we'll take you in
Education welfare officer
"We usually know the children," says Kingston education welfare officer Alison Bolster, "and often they are known to the police as well, so it is good to have a joint approach".

One school reports seeing a boy at the school gates yesterday "smooching with his girlfriend" when he was meant to be sick. He's not in school today so goes on the list.

It's a wet autumn day, but at several homes, there is no answer to the knock on the door.

The team put letters through the doors, telling parents they have visited, reminding them they are responsible for getting their children to school and asking them to speak to the school.

Sympathy

There is a "result" at one house. Two children - aged about 11 and 15 - are found home alone, watching TV.

"Hello Anna. Hello John. Why aren't you in school?"

"I overslept."

"I wanted to see my mum."

"You know you should be in school. Get into your uniforms. We'll take you in."

And that's what happens. Dad is contacted. He is out shopping. When he gets back, he gives permission for his children to be taken to school, saying he can't control them.

The team know the family and have sympathy for the dad, who is bringing up a large family on his own. His son has special educational needs.

When John arrives at school, there is a danger he will be sent straight home again because he is wearing trainers - which are banned - instead of school shoes.

But instead, his dad is called and asked to bring the shoes in. Until then, John will sit outside the school office.

Truancy team with van
The team say they often knock on a number of doors in one area
"If they don't want to have to go to lessons they wear trainers, knowing they'll be sent home," says Alison.

At Anna's school, she is taken to the assistant head's office, where she is asked why she didn't turn up for school. She is sent straight to lessons, but is told to report back at lunchtime. She doesn't look worried.

As the van tours Chessington and Surbiton, the two police and two education welfare officers which make up today's truancy team swap notes on children they "have concerns about".

"One said he had been up in chatrooms until four in the morning, so no wonder he couldn't get up for school," said DC Chris Harris, a youth involvement officer.

"If there's no one telling them to get to bed then it's not surprising."

"One dad told me his children all swore at him and kicked and punched him but he said he didn't discipline them because he loved them too much," said DC Gregory.

The team feel the direct approach - of going to children's homes and speaking to them and their parents - can pay off.

They say they try to offer the parents information and help as well as remind them that legally, they should be sending their children to school if they are registered at one.

Education welfare officer and police youth officer
The team do not always find people at home
Kingston is unusual among authorities in focusing on home visits to suspected truants.

Many regularly trawl parks and shopping centres. Kingston does this sometimes, but officers believe the results are better with a more targeted approach.

"You do get a few people who are rude, but because we know quite a few of the families, we have got a bit of a relationship with them so it gets easier," said education welfare officer Jackie Nash.

"It is sad to see children getting into bad habits of skipping school. Some of the children treat it as if it's a joke. It might feel like that to them now, but it won't be funny a few years down the line when they can't get jobs."

Trawls of shopping centres do not bring good results in an area like Kingston, the team say, as they will find themselves stopping children who have an extra "inset" day off from a different area - or even tourists.

At a national level, councils have been encouraged to take a firm line with parents of persistent truants and use their powers to prosecute, fine or impose parenting orders through the courts.

Jail sentences

There have been several high-profile prosecutions and even jailing of parents, notably the case of Patricia Amos, who has been jailed twice for not ensuring her children went to school.

At Kingston, as at many authorities, prosecuting a parent is very much the last resort, when all other attempts to get a child to school have failed.

The London borough's principal education welfare officer Ming Zhang has conducted research with Cambridge University on why children truant and on the effects of various strategies.

He found that truancy often went hand in hand with poverty, family break-downs and other social problems, and does not believe prosecuting parents helps.

Truancy has been falling in the area in the past few years. Four years ago, the secondary school truancy rate was 1%, roughly the national average. It now stands at 0.33%

The strategy there is carrot and stick - trying to educate parents about their responsibilities, with the threat of prosecution if no progress is made.

"It is important to look at the causes of the problem," says Ming Zhang.

"There is often a cycle with the families. Perhaps the parents did not have much of an education, so do not value it .

"We try to catch the problems early, which is why we have been turning our attention to primary schools as well as secondary school. If you leave it until the child is 15 or 16, it is too late to break the bad habits."

Ming Zhang
You need a rounded approach, says Ming Zhang
The passing of "bad habits" down through generations is all too evident at some homes visited the truancy team.

At one house, the door is opened by a woman who has already been prosecuted for failing to make sure her eldest daughter attended school.

The truancy team now know all the family. Today they are here to see the teenage son.

"He's got a cold," says his mum.

Education welfare officer Jackie Nash talks to the boy as he peeps through the banisters at the top of the stairs.

"I've got a headache," he says.

"Take a headache tablet. We all get headaches," says Jackie.

Jackie has a chat with the boy's sister, in her late teens, who has left school.

"It's Claire isn't it? How are you? What are you doing now?" she asks.

The mother answers for her daughter.

"Nothing," she laughs.

Some names have been changed.


SEE ALSO:
Truant's mother criticises council
06 Apr 04 |  Education
Truancy trials 'positive impact'
23 Mar 04 |  Education
Q&A: Truancy 'fast track'
26 Feb 03 |  Education


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