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Court threat for absentee parents

One of Labour's most influential advisers wants legal action to be taken against parents who fail to attend at least two meetings a year at their children's schools.

Michael Barber, professor of education at London University's Institute of Education and architect of much of Labour's schools policy, also calls for parents of millions of disadvantaged children to be given vouchers worth Pounds 200 to buy books and resources.

Professor Barber is advocating a tough line against parents who refuse to play any part in their children's education. In cases where parents do not meet the proposed legal requirement to discuss their children's progress, he wants their role would be taken over by a mentor appointed by the community. This, says Professor Barber, would help to draw attention to the plight of children whose parents are irresponsible, even destructive.

Professor Barber was due today at the North of England conference in Gateshead to outline his views on imposing a statutory duty on parents to attend meetings with their children's teachers. They would agree six-monthly learning targets and the parents' part in the process.

In an article in The Times today, he says: "Parents would be clear about how they could contribute. They would also be clear about what they could expect from the school . . . Above all, it would reduce the chances of any individual child slipping through the net."

However, the proposal to use legislation against parents is being viewed with scepticism by the teaching professionals.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of one of the largest teacher unions, the National Association of School Masters Union of Women Teachers, dismissed the idea. "In many of the difficult cases it would be impossible to find the parents. And if you did, what would you do? Fine them? Put them in prison? It just could not be done," he said.

While Professor Barber concedes there is a problem about enforcing attendance, he maintains that imposing a legal duty would encourage parents and schools to give such meetings priority and that alone would ensure many more parents turned up at school.

Professor Barber also suggests giving less well-off parents around Pounds 200 a year in vouchers to spend on books and software which had been discussed at the school meetings. The cost of supplying vouchers to the poorest 4 million children could be met, he says, by taxing child benefit. And he wants to see well-equipped out-of-school study centres, where children could do homework, set up in every deprived area.

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