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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 September 2007, 05:09 GMT 06:09 UK
Does fining parents really work?
By Lissa Cook
BBC FiveLive Report

group of teenagers in street
Fines appear to have little effect on attendance
Three-quarters of people think it is right for parents to face fines for serious misbehaviour by their children, a poll for FiveLive Report shows.

More than a third (38%) told ICM Research they should face prison.

But does punishing parents actually work?

One of the areas in which parents most commonly face criminal action is for non attendance of their children at school.

Figures published in the past week show that more than 23,000 notices have so far been issued by local authorities. But Ming Zhang, principal education officer at Kingston upon Thames Council has investigated the use of penalty notices to punish non-attendance. He says he has found no link between fining parents and school attendance.

We were surprised to find that two-thirds of fines were unpaid
Professor John Howson, Education Data Surveys

He said: "In order for penalty notices to have an impact there must be some sort of correlation but my research indicated there isn't such a correlation which means penalty notices have no impact on school attendance. A penalty notice is a sort of last resort. It's not preventative, it's reactive."

He says supportive measures like parenting classes are more effective in getting parents back to school but that is more expensive. It's easier to fine parents or take them to court.

Professor John Howson who runs Education Data Surveys agrees: "It's a cheap option but there's not much evidence they get children back to school".

He has found massive variations across the country.

He said: "Some local authorities scattered them like confetti and didn't seem to bother if they were paid and others hardly seemed to use them at all. We were surprised to find that two-thirds of fines were unpaid - this was much higher than unpaid for court fines where 85-90% are collected. If you're not going to enforce a penalty its pointless using it."

Ineffective deterrent

Tracey was fined 450 for her son and daughter skipping school. She was also given a 12-month parenting order and faces jail if her children continue to truant. She says fines haven't helped. Her daughter's gone back to school and her son's out of control.

She said: "It's not a deterrent at all being fined. Kids don't learn anything from that, they know we'll pay for it so what are they going to learn?

"It's not made them dramatically change or that they're upset over it.

"They find it hilarious reading about themselves in papers, their friends are the same with them. If my children continue to truant as they have been doing I'll be taken back to court and it'll be a more serious thing then, not just a slap on wrist and little fine - it'll be where I could face prison then what'll happen to the children? Maybe they will take them off me then."

Children's Minister Kevin Brennan
We believe penalty notices are an important tool for local authorities, but should only be used as a last resort
Kevin Brennan, Children's Minister

It's not just Tracey who says it doesn't work. Other parents argue fines don't change their kids' behaviour. For instance, Jane is a mother of five who was fined 100. Her eldest son was violent towards her, stole from her, had dyslexia and behavioural problems and refused to go to school.

She says the family didn't get enough support from the school or her local council.

Jane knew she was struggling and looked for help. She went to parenting classes run by the charity Life Education. They really helped her dealing with her other four kids but she said fining her for her son's misbehaviour just meant the rest of the family paid the price.

"When he leaves my door and goes for the bus there's nothing more I can do and they said: 'You've got to make sure he's on that bus'.

"But I've got other children to take to school - he's old enough to take himself. My other children aren't.

"It just put a financial strain on us as a family - my partner was living here at the time and he was working and we couldn't pay it in one go, we paid it weekly, but that was money out of the budget, because no matter if you're working or if you're on benefits you've got a small budget so it just put a financial strain on me, I had to jiggle the shopping, cut back by about 10 a week it was I had to pay. It was awful."

Parenting classes

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) believes fines serve a useful purpose, but are not the only option.

Children's Minister Kevin Brennan said: "We believe penalty notices are an important tool for local authorities, but should only be used as a last resort in cases where parents are persistently and flagrantly failing in their duties.

"The bottom line is we want schools and parents to establish a united front against indiscipline. No parent should be fined if they are doing their utmost and local authorities should provide them with the support they need to get their child back on track.

"But we make no apologies for getting tough on the minority of parents who are obstructive or negligent in the face of poor behaviour. Fines are a helpful deterrent that can drive these parents to positive action - but of course the best outcome for everyone is that they are simply not needed at all."

One of the local authorities which has been most enthusiastic about using penalty notices is Liverpool.

Ron Collinson, lead attendance officer a Liverpool city council says the notices are only one of a number of tools used to improve attendance. The authority also works with schools to improve their management of pupil attendance.

The council also run support programmes for parents including parenting classes.

And they are just appointing 20 parent support workers.

"They may for instance go to the home in the morning, help the mother get kids out to school," says Collinson.

The authority also works with police, finding out what the barriers are to attendance, for instance if kids don't feel safe coming to school.

But he says the penalty notices can work well as "an early intervention strategy." "They concentrate the mind wonderfully. Where they are used with a lighter touch at an earlier stage they do have some impact," he says.

He estimates a 35-40% success rate but he measures that in terms of parents who respond to the initial warning notices requiring them to ensure full attendance over a stated period of around three to four weeks. The penalty notices which actually carry the fine are only issued if they fail to comply.

FiveLive Report: The Parent Trap is on Sunday 30 September at 1100 BST or afterwards on the Five Live Report website. The programme is by All Out Productions.

Fines 'failing to tackle truancy'
17 Apr 07 |  Education
School truancy worse than thought
29 Mar 07 |  Education


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