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Plea for tougher law on truancy

Courts should be given new powers to order parents to take truanting children to school, local authority leaders say.

The call follows two cases in which magistrates ordered parents in Lewisham, south London, to take their children to school as a condition of bail, rather than imposing fines for failing to make sure they attended.

The orders were welcomed by Lewisham education authority, which is running a campaign to reduce truancy. But the authority believes magistrates should be able to make such orders under an education Act.

The 1993 Education Act stipulates that parents can be fined up to Pounds 1,000 for failing to make sure their children attend school, but there is no provision for escort orders.

In the first case of its kind, two months ago, Simone Westlake had been charged with failing to ensure her 13-year-old son Alan attended school.

But Greenwich magistrates postponed sentencing and ordered her to take Alan to school as a condition of bail. When the case returned to court last week, magistrate Eleri Rees extended the order instead of imposing a fine.

She also made a similar order on Linda Johnson, whose son Noel, 15, had missed 88 days' school in this academic year.

Gavin Moore, chair of Lewisham's education committee, said: "It's ludicrous that magistrates have to resort to a legal sleight of hand using the bail laws to make such orders, rather than the Education Act which only allows them to fine a parent.

"I want to see the Education Act amended to allow magistrates to make escort orders backed up by the threat of a substantial fine.

"What councils need from the courts is practical help and support to get truants back to school and ensure that parents carry out their responsibilities."

The escort orders have been effective, with the two parents taking their children to school every day, Lewisham says. But officials say there are question marks over how long such orders could be renewed and over what would happen if they were disobeyed.

They fear it could mean a parent facing prison for breaking bail conditions even though the original offence is punishable only by a fine.

The latest official figures show that prosecutions for unauthorised absence are rising, going up from a total in England of 2,803 in 199192 to 3,688 in 199394.

Alan Parker, education officer for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said: "These orders are clearly effective, but it would be better if it could be done in a more straightforward way. Truancy is a persistent problem in some areas and a number of authorities have grasped the nettle and tried to combat it. Very often it comes down to parents who cannot or will not control their children, and it's difficult to apply a punitive fine if they are unemployed or on a low income.

"Pointing them in the direction of what they ought to be doing and giving them support is much better than meting out punishment."

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