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Maths for mechanics might tempt truants

I went recently to a memorial service for Marjorie Reeves who taught me history at university. Dr Reeves was a medieval historian with a flair for teaching undergraduates. She was also an enthusiastic educationalist who revolutionised school history text books and believed that education was about developing people not meeting targets.

During the late 1920s, she found herself in a London school struggling to teach 14-year-old girls who wanted to be hairdressers. So she devised a history syllabus for hairdressers. The result was a group of teenage girls on the streets of south-east London wearing their hair in the style of Ancient Egyptians.

It was a characteristically original way of coping with bored and rebellious students and an interesting contrast to last week's news that Oxfordshire county council had chosen to deal with one bored and rebellious truant by bringing a court case which put her mother in jail. Patricia Amos was sent to prison for failing to ensure that Jacqueline, her 14-year-old daughter, attended school. For the second time.

Given that the a prison sentence hadn't worked the first time, it's hard to see why the council decided to have another go. It's even harder to understand why, with the prisons bursting at the seams, anyone ever thought it made sense to start putting mothers in jail for what amounts to little more than parental fecklessness. If the Government means what it says about cutting the number of people who are jailed for minor offences and reducing reoffending, now running at 75 per cent, this is an odd way to go about it.

The council's case is that Mrs Amos was offered support which she refused to take and that she was unwilling, not unable, to get her daughter to school. Ministers back the council "pour encourager les autres."

It is true that, after the first prosecution, a few Oxfordshire truants did return to school but even the council does not claim that the Amos effect is permanent. Truancy in the county was declining before Mrs Amos went to prison.

Nationally, since the law was changed in 2001 to allow parents of recalcitrant truants to be jailed, the truancy rate has refused to budge despite truancy sweeps and a multi-million pound programme of support.

Ministers' belief that prison sentences will hammer home the message that school matters is mistaken. Frightening parents into sending their children to school is not the same as convincing them that education is important.

Much the same is happening in the teaching of reading. Tests and targets have sent our children's reading scores shooting to the top of the international literacy tables but their enjoyment of books lags way behind that of other nations.

Pupils and their experience of school, not parents, should be the starting point of policies to defeat truancy. Teenagers know this. "It shouldn't have been my mum that got done for this," Emma, Mrs Amos' elder daughter, said when her mother was jailed for the first time.

In the short term, we should try bribery. Manchester city council is offering entry into a truancy lottery for improved attendance with a pound;100 prize. Cinema or football match tickets, Top Shop or pizza vouchers begged from local businesses would do.

In the long term, the answer is a curriculum that breaks decisively with the grammar school offering which has changed little for more than a century. We need history for hairdressers and maths for mechanics.

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