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Pay now or pay forever.

Byline: By Denise Robertson

Last week I took part in a television programme on truancy. It featured a mother who has just served a two-week prison sentence for her 14-year-old daughter's non-attendance at school. The mother swears she has done everything in her power to get her daughter to school and after I heard the errant daughter vow that nothing would make her go to school in future, not even another jail sentence for mum, I was inclined to believe her.

At a rough guess the daughter was an inch or two taller and half a stone heavier than her mum. Given that we don't countenance the use of whips or handcuffs what is the mother expected to do? Starve her into submission? No, that would be a crime. Of course their situation is out of hand and has been for years but all imprisonment is doing is impose a further burden on the taxpayer without curing the problem.

It's a big problem. Everyday more than 54,000 pupils across the UK miss a day of school without permission and an estimated 7.5 million school days are missed each year through truancy.

Research shows these children who are not in school are most vulnerable, are easily drawn into crime and antisocial behaviour and more likely to be unemployed after leaving school. The 2002 Mori Youth Justice survey showed those who play truant are more likely to offend than those that do not, with two-thirds (65%) of truants having offended compared to less than a third (30%) of those who have not played truant.

The link between truancy and crime was also stated in the 2004 Mori Youth Justice Survey. If a child truants one day a week over the course of their schooldays they will miss two whole years of teaching. Imagine the effect that has on their adult employability. Besides which 16,000 hours of police time is spent on truancy sweeps. Work out the cost.

But a child who persistently truants - as opposed to a child who has psychological problems with school attendance - is already beyond their parents' control. Threatening that parent won't work. Mum or dad's incarceration would just mean a few weeks free from nagging. And it seems to me almost immoral to jail a parent for their child's non-attendance while telling them that their child's underage sex or abortion is none of their business. Parents are responsible or they are not.

Truants need to know the buck will stop at their door, not their parents and before you ask why the parents should get off scot-free imagine life with a recalcitrant teenager who has been made to do something he or she doesn't want to do. The parents will pay, of that you can be sure. We need to make sure they are collected every day and once in school, kept there. If they disrupt the original school then they should be taught in an establishment designed for the purpose. OK, one to one supervision would be expensive, though not, I suspect, more than we are shelling out at present, but my guess is that when word got around that truancy was not an option the need to deal with it would slow to a trickle. And even if it costs, the nation needs its children to go to school. If they don't they will probably be a drain on national resources for the rest of their lives.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 8, 2008
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