We need to work with families to address truancy not punish them
At the Conservative Party Conference David Cameron announced that parents who receive fines for their child ‘playing truant’ and do not pay within 28 days will have their Child Benefit payments docked.
The prime minister said “All the evidence is that if children consistently miss school, they get a worse education, they get worse results and as a result they have less good prospects for the rest of their lives”.
We couldn’t agree more that attendance at school is vital for children to succeed in education, but we have concerns that this new policy will not achieve the desired aims of raising the attainment of the most deprived children.
The term ‘playing truant’ is also misleading. Children who are persistently absent from school often face serious barriers to education, including insecure housing, domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health issues or they are carers for relatives. The suggestion that missing school is a deliberate choice and that parents do not care does not reflect the vast majority of families we have worked with over our 30 years of operation. What is needed is professional support for families, to address the underlying causes of poor attendance and the means to improve their parenting skills.
The current fines policy already penalises poorer families more severely. If you are not able to pay the initial £60 fine within 21 days, it is doubled to £120, taking more money out of the pockets of those who don’t easily have £60 to spare.
The families who make a financial choice to take children out of school to get cheaper flights are happy to pay the fine immediately. Whereas for those families living in poverty, where there are significant barriers preventing children from getting to school, the doubled fine will have a serious impact on their ability to pay for essentials and often push them further from the services that might be able to help.
The introduction of Child Benefit sanctions won’t only put families under further financial difficulty, but it won’t have the desired impact of increasing attendance either. It is most likely to further damage the relationship between school and parents, when, for children to thrive, this relationship needs to be as strong as possible.
As the front-line of early help for many vulnerable children, in order to address the issue of persistent absence, schools need to work collaboratively with families to understand the issues they are facing and support them to overcome them. As the severity of cases schools are dealing with increases, it is vital that staff have the skills and confidence to do this effectively. In our manifesto for 2015, a key recommendation was to introduce a national standard for parent support advisors to ensure that they have these skills. With a skilled workforce focused on supporting families to get their children to school, ready to learn, we are confident that we would see a dramatic reduction in persistent absence.