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Is Clarke right to punish parents?

Critics say that fining families of children who skip school will damage relationships with teachers and welfare staff. George Wright reports

Charles Clarke's plan to introduce a new system of fines for parents of truants will revive the controversy over Labour's approach to delinquency and youth crime.

Critics will say that the Education Secretary's new, hardline measures simply punish, rather than support, the parents of troubled children. But the Government will point to the success of parenting orders - one of the main weapons in the fight against juvenile delinquency - as proof that a tough approach works.

Councils can apply for an order against any parent whose child has committed a criminal offence, has been truanting, or has been seriously anti-social on the streets. The orders, introduced nationally in 2000, require the parent to take whatever measures are deemed necessary to bring their child's behaviour under control.

They may be required to undergo training or counselling, to make sure their child attends a course, or to ensure that they avoid contact with a gang.

The first detailed evaluation of the scheme, published last month, showed 3,000 parents attended parenting courses between April 2000 and December 2001. Most attended voluntarily, but 500 were ordered to do so by the courts.

The apparent change in their children's behaviour was significant. Convictions among children of parents on courses were down by 30 per cent on the previous year, while the number of recorded offences halved, from an average of 4.4 to 2.1 offences per child.

The other key factor was the change in parents' attitudes.

Lord Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said: "Many people had to be compelled on to these courses by the courts. They didn't want to take part - they simply didn't realise how bad their problems were.

"Once they met other parents in similar situations and were given specific advice on dealing with problem teenagers, they began to respond. More than 90 per cent of parents who attended courses said they would recommend them to others - that is proof of the change in attitudes."

Supporters say that the main reason for the scheme's success is the threat of a maximum pound;2,500 fine or a prison sentence - as in the case of jailed truancy mother Patricia Amos - for those who fail to comply. Agencies that back parenting orders are also likely to support the new contracts proposed by Mr Clarke, because, like the orders, they aim to use a "carrot-and-stick" approach.

However, they are unlikely to support purely punitive measures such as fines.

The Association for Education Welfare Management said fines were fraught with practical problems and would undermine relationships with families if teachers and youth workers begin to be seen as "enforcers".

The National Association of Head Teachers backs the use of fines to help tackle the "hard core" of parents who it says deliberately ignore the many problems caused by truancy.

But many heads believe that it will undermine their relationship with pupils if they are expected to act as police and issue the fines.

Ultimately, the best argument in favour of tougher measures might come from those who have been on the receiving end of them.

Patricia Amos sparked a public debate about parenting when she was jailed for 60 days by a Banbury court in May for failing to ensure that her daughters attended school regularly. Ms Amos, who was freed on appeal after spending only 14 days in a cell, said the sentence "brought me to my senses".

Leader, 22

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