Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Jailing parents: Did it work?

Truancy, Patricia Amos, teenagers, Estelle Morris
Patricia Amos (left) jailed while Estelle Morris (right) was education secretary

The pledge made in 1998 to cut truancy in England by a third was ambitious. It was an exercise in testing whether government could change the behaviour of those at the edges of society.

Truancy has existed since education became compulsory - but the Labour government pushed it up the political agenda and presented it as an urgent problem linked to youth crime and underachievement.

The "social exclusion unit", spearheading the idea of "joined-up government", made tackling truancy a priority.

The tactics for getting truants off the streets were to be tougher penalties, more support for families and new technology.

"Make no mistake, this tough love approach must be made to work," said the then education secretary, David Blunkett, at the Labour conference in 1998 - announcing a 500m anti-truancy drive.

Each year, the stakes were raised - parents faced higher fines and then jail, the technology moved from pager messages to texts and electronic tags and there was funding for mentors and breakfast clubs.

But the truanting children showed few signs of being persuaded.

Missed targets

In retrospect, the target was downright "naive", says truancy researcher Ming Zhang, who has tracked the government's efforts to tackle this most stubborn of problems.

Unauthorised absences, England:
1997 0.7%
2007: 1%
Truants' parents jailed in England and Wales:
2002-04: 51 parents
2005-07: 82 parents
2000: 6,105
2007: 10,768

The target of reducing truancy by a third was comprehensively missed in 2002 and the most recent figures show that it has still not been achieved.

Another more modest target also missed its deadline in 2004.

Rather than cutting truancy, after all the crackdowns and approaching a billion pounds spent directly or indirectly on the problem, the rate of unauthorised absences is higher now than in 1997.

Then, the rate of unauthorised absences was 0.7% of pupils - the most recent annual figures, for 2006-07, show it was 1%. Instead of being cut by a third, it has risen by more than a third.

More recent termly figures, up to spring 2008, show the rate as 0.97%.

The government no longer has any target for truancy - preferring instead to see it from the more optimistic angle of measuring attendance rather than absence.

With such an outcome after 12 years of talking tough, the anti-truancy drives might seem like an expensive failure.

Personal success

In 2005, the National Audit Office concluded that despite 885m of funding, there had been no substantial difference to the figures for unauthorised absences.

But it might not be such a black and white picture. While it might not have "worked" for reducing the numbers, individuals might have a different story.

Emma Garza on the effects of her mother's jail term

Emma, daughter of Patricia Amos, the first parent jailed over truancy, stopped skipping school, stayed on to get qualifications and is working. In her case, it could be said that the tough line produced results.

The outcome was much bleaker for her mother, who returned to jail two years later for a second time for a truancy offence. She appeared in the press more recently in the trial of a drugs dealer who had cut off part of her ear over a debt.

Estelle Morris, who was education secretary at the time Patricia Amos was jailed, says the threat of prison was about protecting the future of the child - so in that sense, it worked for the daughter if not the mother.

Truancy researcher Ming Zhang says that jailing parents was useful as a way of raising publicity, but he says that in general any improvement was likely to be short-lived.

He says that the imposition of fines had a positive impact that typically lasted about three months; in the longer term any change was "minimal".

His research suggests that the truancy problem has very deep roots - and has resisted attempts to tackle it for most of the past century.

"It was naive to think that using some tough measure would reduce truancy by a third. It was unrealistic," he said.

"If you're serious about attendance, you need to look at the root causes."

The most significant cause, he says, is poverty, which is inextricably linked with lost opportunities in school.

In terms of "Did it work?", he also says that it has helped to focus the debate - such as identifying persistent truants most in need of support, who are now identified as a group in England's attendance statistics.

Social costs

Malcolm Trobe, policy director for the ASCL head teachers' union, says there have been positive results from the attention paid to truancy.

David Blunkett
David Blunkett announced a 500m anti-truancy drive in autumn 1998

Schools are much more sophisticated in how they identify truancy problems, he says, and there are more effective partnerships with other agencies, such as the police.

He also backs the use of the courts - and says that parents can halt such proceedings by getting their child to start attending school.

But he says that it showed that passing legislation did not necessarily change anything on the ground - and that change was really achieved by long, slow work.

Breaking even

Success or failure might not be so cut and dried. Research in the United States has weighed the long-term cost of truancy in terms of the sharply increased risk of youth crime and drug abuse.

The US National Center for School Engagement has calculated that taxpayers might "break even" with an apparently low rate of success in stopping truancy - maybe as low as turning around one in 700 truants.

Using local figures from Colorado, the research suggests that for every truant who is brought back into regular school attendance, the taxpayer saves more than $200,000.

Keeping them in school when they are young is much cheaper than letting them drift into jail when they are older.

Schools which suffered from high rates of truancy were also identified as a problem - with a list being published in 1998 showing those with the worst records.

Whether there has been a success story in this group of schools is also hard to establish - because most of the 20 schools with the worst truancy records have since been shut down or re-opened with a different name or as an Academy.

Professor Ken Reid, deputy vice-chancellor at Swansea Metropolitan University, has researched truancy for many years - and says that talking tough and jailing truants can make headlines, but it does little to change the underlying problem.

He concludes that there has been "no improvement" - because many of the causes of persistent truancy, such as disrupted homes and family breakdown, are beyond the influence of anti-truancy initiatives.

There have been changes, he says - in England's secondary schools more girls are now truanting than boys - but the overall problem remains stubbornly unresolved.

Here are some of your comments.

I was horrified by this story. Talk about a police state! As if a parent has so much control over their kids as to be able to force them to behave. And if the same parents were to regularly give the kids a good strapping, guess what? They face being held up as abusers and having the kids taken into state care! Here in the states there are now cases where parents are having their kids taken into care for refusing to put them on psychoactive drugs. A good debate question would be this: Who decides what is best for my kids? Seems like it is ever more increasingly the state and I for one think this is completely insane.
John Shires, Atlanta US

My daughter has played truant before without me even knowing. When I did find out I asked her school to ring me no matter what if she was not at school for first registration, but they never did. I work full time and my daughter catches the school bus about 10 minutes before I leave for work. It took several calls from me constantly repeating myself every phone call to the school to ask 'why have you not rung me like I asked you to?' I think it is unfair for parents to be given prison sentences if as far as they are concerned their child has got on the school bus if they do not live within walking distance, or walked to school and have then decided they are not going to attend school that day. How can a parent control that especially if the school does not notify them straight away or not at all? I also believe it is unfair in these circumstances that if a parent believes their child is in school when they are not and they are working parents providing for their families, that if a prison sentence is issued, the parent 9 times out of 10 will lose their job, have a criminal record and find it even harder to get a job, then that is another hardship on the parents and family. As the old saying goes, 'you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.' It is the same for parents who constantly tell their children 'you must go to school or this that and the other may happen' If that child decides not to go how can the parent possibly stop that if they are unaware and at work or have not been informed by the school on that day that their child is not there.
Caroline, Lymington Hampshire

Maybe we should be looking for alternatives for the young people, as the majority of truants are 14 to 16 years old. Possibly boarding school for a set period of time ie 3 months. If they are away from their peers and parents maybe they would think twice before ruining their lives.
Lisa Howard, Lancing

How are the parents supposed to "force" rebellious teens to school?? Physically transporting them to the school against their will would result the social services unleashing their child snatching brigade and will subsequently result in charges of child abuse or assault against the parents!
Joseph Garrick , Dunfermline, Fife

I would suggest that this policy is in fact an infringement on ones human rights. How can a parent be punished for a child's wrong doing. Whilst it is accepted that on occassion it may be the parent preventing the child from going to school, what can they do when the child refuses to go (although appropriate discplinary measures should prevent this). Whilst every child has a right to education, this may not necessarily be from a school. There are other ways that a child can be taught and by forcing this upon them we are also denying them and parents as to how they wish their children to develop. Even at schools there are some undesirable and heinous things that a child can learn and it appears this system punishes non conformists? I think the new academies are a prime example of this, they are so controlled and manipulated to produce 'robots' to feed the sponsors industry.
Kwansah, London UK, Axim Ghana

Is this the best the government can do - beat up everybody with a big stick? Pathetic.
Dr A, Birmingham

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