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'Enforcers' condemn spot fines for truants

But heads back scheme which they say will tackle worst offenders. Michael Shaw reports

EDUCATION welfare officers this week criticised plans for on-the-spot fines to parents for truants, warning the move would undermine their efforts to encourage school attendance.

The fixed penalties, of between pound;40 and pound;80, are expected to be introduced along with benefit cuts as part of a planned clampdown on truancy unveiled in the Queen's Speech.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke indicated that welfare officers would be given powers to issue the fines, saying it was unacceptable that half of all truants caught on sweeps were with parents or other adults.

The Association for Education Welfare Management said on-the-spot fines were fraught with logistic problems and would undermine relations with families.

Jennie Clark, its spokeswoman, said: "We will not be able to help schools achieve full attendance if parents and pupils think of us as 'enforcers', and do not let us work with them."

Concern was also raised by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Union of Teachers, and the Liberal Democrats.

However, the National Association of Head Teachers applauded the plan, stating that it would help tackle the "hard core" of parents who deliberately disregarded the problems created by truancy.

On-the-spot fines are being piloted in Birmingham, Essex, north Wales and the London borough of Croydon for low-level crimes including wasting police time and throwing stones.

The Government plans to extend the fixed penalties to cover other anti-social behaviour such as dropping litter or chewing gum, and graffiti.

In her speech at the opening of Parliament this week, the Queen said the Government would "bring forward proposals to tackle problems of truancy".

But she told MPs: "Raising education standards remains my Government's main priority for Britain's prosperity.

"Secondary school reform will continue to promote opportunity and choice through greater diversity for parents and pupils."

The speech also confirmed that the Government would publish proposals on its plans to revamp university and student funding. They will "improve access and build on excellence", the Queen said.

But there was no clue as to whether they would involve a graduate tax or top-up fees, despite plans by a number of leading universities - including London's Imperial College - to charge up to pound;10,500 extra a year.

A long-delayed strategy paper on university funding is due to be published in January, and is expected to extend educational maintenance allowances of pound;40 a week to university students.

Universities have argued that top-up fees are needed to help them compete on an international scale. However, a TES poll this month found that fewer than one in four parents supported them.

Mr Clarke has said he is "broadly anti top-up fees", but has so far refused to make up his mind.

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