Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Truancy jailing every two weeks

By Sean Coughlan and James Westhead
BBC News

Has sending parents to prison been effective in cutting truancy?

A parent is jailed for their child's truancy once a fortnight every school term in England and Wales, analysis of court statistics shows.

The first high-profile jailing of a truant's parent, Patricia Amos in 2002, sparked international controversy.

But since then, away from the headlines, penalties for parents have risen rapidly, with 10,000 prosecutions in England in 2007 - up 76% since 2000.

Despite the penalties, unauthorised absences are higher than in 1997.

The latest figures on tackling truancy and parental responsibility, published on Thursday, show that there has been a 41% annual increase in the number of parenting contracts to improve attendance in England.

The "fast-track" scheme to intervene with truancy problems has had 125,000 cases since 2004.

Missed target

"It's important that we back schools and local authorities in using these powers to tackle problem absentees and bad behaviour, they rightly make parents take responsibility for their children," says England Children's Minister Delyth Morgan.

Patricia Amos
Unauthorised absences increased after Patricia Amos was jailed

The Labour government has made a priority of tackling truancy, introducing increasingly severe penalties.

It set an ambitious target of cutting truancy by a third - but after more than a decade of crackdowns the most recent figures show that the rate of unauthorised absence in England is a third higher than in 1997.

In the years following the jailing of Patricia Amos, the rate of unauthorised absences increased rather than fell.

The government now says that it prefers to look at overall absence, including absences that have been authorised by schools, rather than to focus on truancy. On this measure, there has been an improvement.

The toughest response to truancy has been the threat of jailing - and up to 2007 there have been 133 parents imprisoned in England and Wales.

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, there have not been any jailings. The number of truancy fines imposed in Northern Ireland last year was 107.

Scotland has now stopped counting unauthorised absences as distinct from those authorised by schools.

'I'm not at ease with it'

Estelle Morris, education secretary when the tactic of jailing parents was first used in England, now has doubts about its value. At the time it was a sanction worth attempting, but she says: "I don't like it, I'm not at ease with it."

Teenagers hanging around
63,000 pupils truant each day
Most truants are girls, peak ages 15-16
266,000 persistent truants in spring 2008
Most persistent truants: Hull, Manchester
Least persistent truants: Kensington, Bath
10,400 prosecutions in 2007
Unauthorised absences higher now than in 1997

"If I was a minister now, I would want to look at the evidence - and if going to prison never worked or hardly ever worked, I would want to backtrack."

There are divided experiences among families directly affected by such jailings.

Emma Garza, daughter of Patricia Amos, says the jailing was a shock tactic that worked - and she stopped truanting.

"I felt really guilty and wanted to go back to school... I went straight back and knuckled down," says Emma, now 22, who stayed on for her GCSEs, went on to college and is working.

But Rose Connor, a Northampton mother jailed in 2006 when she was seven months pregnant, says it was a waste of time, and her son never returned to school.

"We were made a scapegoat," she says. "It was a way of getting publicity to reinforce the message. Prison didn't solve anything."

Family breakdown

The increase in jailings and prosecutions has had no significant impact on truancy, says Professor Ken Reid, who chaired a review of school attendance for the Welsh Assembly Government.

Emma says the jailing of her mother shocked her out of truanting

"There is no evidence that jailing parents makes any difference," says Professor Reid - who has argued for much earlier intervention with truancy.

He says that this is because the roots of truancy are in problems such as a breakdown of family life - and that jailing parents is not going to address such issues.

Head teachers say that schools have "upped their game" over truancy and have much more sophisticated ways of monitoring attendance.

Malcolm Trobe, policy director for the ASCL head teachers' union, says that the lack of reduction in unauthorised absences shows that launching initiatives and passing legislation does not mean that change will happen on the ground.

"The government should be judged on its record for overall absence for the whole of the academic year, which has continued to fall over the past decade," says a spokesman for England's Department for Children, Schools and Families.

"Our message is getting across to schools and parents that every lesson counts for children."

The Conservatives supported the introduction of the jailing of truants' parents - and the party's schools spokesman, Nick Gibb, links truancy to behaviour problems.

"The inexorable rise in unauthorised absences in secondary schools is yet another sign of problems with discipline and behaviour in our education system that remains unresolved despite nearly a billion pounds of public money and a range of government initiatives," said Mr Gibb.

The Liberal Democrats' children's spokesman, David Laws, said it showed "the government's draconian strategy is failing".

"Truancy rates across the country remain sky-high. It's obvious that Labour's top-down approach has failed."

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