The punishment of parents of children who miss large amounts of school is subject to a "postcode lottery", education welfare officers have warned. There are "unjust" regional variations in the sanctions being meted out to parents because of a drastic reduction in the number of experts employed to tackle persistent absenteeism and truancy, it has been claimed.
Parents can face a range of sanctions if they fail to ensure that their children attend school, including fines, parenting contracts and education supervision orders, which allow families to be monitored and prosecuted if they breach their conditions.
But pressure is being put on schools to take on the work of local authorities in preparing action against parents, leading to an inconsistent approach across the country, according to the National Association of Social Workers in Education (NASWE) and the Association of Education Welfare Management (AEWM).
Schools are not able to devote the same amount of time as welfare officers to cracking down on poor attendance, meaning parents in some areas are avoiding legal action. The problem also affects the growing number of academies, which do not have to call on local authorities' support services.
Part of the problem is that there is no nationally agreed threshold at which legal proceedings against parents should start. In a letter to the Magistrates' Association, sent earlier this month, NASWE and AEWM warned that this is causing "confusion and significant regional variation". The organisations want the Department for Education to introduce clearer guidelines and called on the Magistrates' Association to back their campaign, which the association said it was considering.
Research carried out last year by NASWE, which has not previously been made public, found that the lack of guidance had already led to a "postcode lottery" in terms of what action was taken against parents. It also found that education welfare services were being "rationed" and that some local authorities were relying on schools to prepare cases.
The research said schools were abandoning parental prosecutions because of the "alarming amount of paperwork and skilled assessment needed". Representatives from NASWE and AEWM have discussed their concerns with DfE officials.
"Cuts have been so severe that schools are now being asked to prepare all documentation, including witness statements and consideration of an education supervision order, before an authority is able to progress the case through the courts," the joint letter said. "This means that schools (and academies with little or no local accountability) in effect decide who does and who does not become subject to enforcement proceedings."
Vicki Kavanagh, head of Crocketts Community Primary in Smethwick, West Midlands, has hired her own education welfare officer, whom she shares with other schools locally, because of local authority cuts. "We can still access support from the local authority, but the service has been reduced, so this makes up for the shortfall," she said. "This isn't because of disloyalty to the local authority; it is to supplement their work. The cuts were enforced on the council, but they have left schools in a vulnerable position."
Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said national guidance would not be helpful because of the variety of arrangements that already exists in local areas. "But local authorities should work with their schools to ensure clear thresholds for intervention on poor attendance, and clear roles and responsibilities about the provision of support and the bringing of enforcement action where necessary," she said.
See you in court
11,757 - Number of cases involving child truancy brought to magistrates' courts in England and Wales in 2010, up from 11,188 in 2009.
9,147 - people were found guilty.
5,938 - received fines.
413 - were given a community sentence.
53 - received a suspended sentence.
25 - were sent to prison.
90 - days was the longest custodial sentence.
#163;850 - was the highest fine.