Published on 16 Apr 2012 Sections ,

Q+A: what sanctions should parents of truants face?

A government adviser recommends that parents of truants have their child benefit docked. Channel 4 News asks if the threat of fines for truancy actually works and speaks to a truant schoolgirl.

Charlie Taylor is proposing that some parents who are fined for failing to ensure their children attend school should have this money automatically deducted from their child benefit.

He told Channel 4 News: “The system that we have currently have for parents who persistently don’t send their children to school is effective up to a point, but what I’ve found is it’s not watertight and it’s protracted and we’ve found that 50-60 per cent of fines don’t get paid at all. So in terms of the real deterrent effect that fining parents can have, actually it isn’t there as strongly as it could be.”

What is the problem?

The Department for Education (DfE) says almost 400,000 pupils miss 15 per cent of schooling a year – equivalent to having a month off school.

Persistent absence becomes worse as chilldren age, with the problem most acute among 14 to 16-year-olds. Failing to attend lessons leaves these children at an educational disadvantage.

Of those missing up to 20 per cent of school, just 35 per cent achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. Of pupils who attend 95 per cent of school, 73 per cent reach this standard.

What happens now?

The Labour government introduced £50 fines for parents of truants in 2004. Headteachers have the power to levy these fines, with parents given 28 days to pay.

If they fail to do so, the fine is doubled to £100. If the fine has not been paid after 42 days, the local authority has to withdraw the penalty notice, but can prosecute parents.

Since 2004, 127,000 penalty notices have been issued, more than 32,600 last year. Half of these notices were unpaid or withdrawn.

In 2010, of 9,147 parents found guilty by the courts, 6,591 received a fine or a more serious sanction. The average fine imposed by courts was £165.

The DfE says: “Education welfare officers report that, within certain groups of parents, the word has spread that prosecution for poor attendance is a muddled process in which there is a good chance of getting off without sanction.”

Last year, the coalition government lowered the threshold at which a pupil is deemed a persistent truant. Previously, children who missed 20 per cent of school were defined as persistent absentees. Now those missing 15 per cent of lessons are included in this category.

What changes are being proposed?

Charlie Taylor believes the system needs toughening. He is proposing that the £50 penalty should be increased to £60, with this fine doubled to £120 if it has not been paid after 28 days. This sum would have to be paid within 42 days. The government has accepted this proposal.

More controversially, Mr Taylor argues that once the fine has been doubled, money should be automatically deducted from child benefit, which is worth £20.30 a week for the first child and £13.40 for all subsequent children.

All parents of children up to 16 receive child benefit, but from January 2013, those earning more than £60,000 will not do so. For those not in receipt of child benefit, fines would be recovered through the county courts. The government is considering this proposal.

Who plays truant?

A report for the DfE in 2003 by a team at Glasgow University looked at why children played truant. It found that most parents thought it was very important for children to attend school regularly, associating this with higher attainment.

But parents with children with attendance problems did not believe regular school attendance was as important as those whose children did not truant.

Among primary school children, 27 per cent said they had truanted “without the collusion of their parents”, mostly for school- rather than home-related reasons, including being bullied, boredom, dislike of teachers and avoidance of tests.

Most of these children said they believed their parents would be angry with them if they discovered what they had done.

Among secondary school pupils, 16 per cent admitted truanting. The reasons given for doing so were also school related: bullying, having no friends and peer pressure.

Another report for the government, written in 2004 by researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that higher than average levels of unauthorised absence were seen among young people with special educational needs and those receiving free school meals (poorer pupils).

‘Reasons for doing this’

The charity Rathbone works with disadvantaged 14 to 16-year-olds who have either been excluded from school or are on the verge of being excluded. Most have played truant.

It has found that bullying is one of the main reasons young people fail to attend school, along with learning difficulties. In one case, a teenage girl in Derby was playing truant and self-harming because she was being bullied about her sexuality. Her family was not fined for her non-attendance.

Rathbone spokesman Peter Gibson told Channel 4 News said the threat of fines for truancy sometimes worked, but prosecution would not change behaviour.

“On occasion it works quite well as a deterrent, where the family is close knit and the young person feels they’re letting their family down” he said. “We’ve questioned persistent truants and the majority said the threat of prosecution would make no difference, they’d still truant. It’s not the case that they can’t be bothered or they’re lazy. There are reasons they’re doing this.”

The Child Poverty Action Group says that with child benefit frozen, poorer parents are already feeling the pinch, and with the prospect of losing some of this money, they would find it even harder to get by.

The charity says docking child benefit would hit children as well as parents because it would affect family finances, making life even harder for families already in difficulty.

But Charlie Taylor told Channel 4 News: “When we’re talking about poverty, one of the best routes out of poverty is a good education, and if children aren’t in school they can’t get that good education, they can’t get that academic success, and the chances of them going on to get a good job are reduced and the danger is we just repeat the cycle of poverty.”