Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Ministers caught in truancy trap

Estelle Morris on the need for the measure and whether it worked

"If it worked, it was worth it. If it didn't then it wasn't."

Estelle Morris was education secretary in England when Patricia Amos became the first parent to be jailed for her children's persistent truancy.

Looking back on the increasingly exasperated efforts to tackle school absence, she says she still believes that it was the right decision at the time to use imprisonment as a penalty.

"There had to be a sanction. But once we had used it, it was a sign of failure," says Baroness Morris.

But she also describes the political pressure that pushed the government of "education, education, education" into jailing parents.

The target for cutting truancy by a third had been one of the earliest and most significant pledges of the Labour government.

Education ministers had to produce a weekly update of the figures for the prime minister.

No 'easy wins'

But the truancy figures proved much harder to shift than had been anticipated - leaving ministers facing the pressure of targets that were becoming increasingly out of reach.

Morris Frost
Frost Morris: Labour put themselves under pressure on truancy targets

"It was the perfect example of where a target became a pain in the backside."

There were no "easy wins" with the truancy, she says, with the roots often lying in complex social problems in children's home life.

"We could do many things about schools standards - but couldn't control what went on in the home."

"The fines didn't work," she says. Families facing penalties were often on benefits, which meant they might only be asked to pay back a few pounds a week.

Large amounts of money, political support and technology were applied, but nothing seemed to work. There were breakfast clubs and homework clubs and mentors who would knock on doors and take children to school.

Lost languages

There were calls for more flexibility in the secondary curriculum - and this was a driver for the decision to end compulsory modern language lessons after the age of 14.

"It was hugely frustrating. I could list 20 initiatives that worked a bit, but when the figures came up, nothing had changed."

Estelle Morris
Estelle Morris had to report the latest truancy figures to the prime minister

With no sign of improvements, head teachers were demanding stronger action, she says - prompting the government to talk to magistrates about taking a tougher line.

The head teachers, with the sympathy of the prime minister, called for cuts in child benefit for the parents of truants.

"We were under pressure to find another stage," she says.

That stage was to imprison parents of persistent truants.

Baroness Morris admits to being "uneasy" and "uncomfortable" with what happened, but she says that it was a case of putting the protection of the child above the concerns for the parent.

"We make sure a child is fed and housed," she says - and education should be no less a requirement.

Where the anti-truancy drive was lacking, she says, was a more evidence-based approach. The pressure for quick results meant that schemes were not piloted or tested enough to see what would work, she suggests.

Looking back, she also has questions about the quality of the original truancy data against which the targets were measured.

But she stands by the government's willingness to take a tough line on behalf of a marginalised group of youngsters who were at risk of ending up without an education or qualifications.

There was no electoral advantage or political self-interest in chasing these families, she says - but they were at the heart of the government's pledge to increase the chances of the most deprived.

"I have no regrets - at the time it was the right thing to do."

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