PARENTS of 10 children this week became the first to appear in court under a new fast-track scheme to clamp down on truancy.
Their cases came as education minister Ivan Lewis reiterated that all parents who allowed their children to miss school without permission could receive fines of up to pound;2,500 or prison sentences of up to three months - including those who took their children on holiday during term-time.
Thurrock Council in Essex prosecuted the families using a fast-track scheme being piloted by nine authorities, where parents are taken to court within 12 weeks of their child's first unauthorised absence (see box, below).
The majority of the families, whose children range in age from five to 16, pleaded not guilty. The cases have been adjourned until April.
Councils have had powers since 1996 to take parents to court if their children miss school repeatedly without permission.
The Government plans to introduce new legislation this year so headteachers can give parents of truants on-the-spot fines of pound;50. Special home-school contracts will also be launched which will force parents to take parenting classes, or face prosecution, if their children continue to behave anti-socially.
National truancy patrols in December stopped more than 20,000 pupils, 7,300 of whom did not have permission to be out of school. Half of the truanting children were with an adult.
Meanwhile, a survey of 713 parents by the Department for Education and Skills and the Association of British Travel Agents found that only 13 per cent would never consider taking their children on holiday during term-time.
Headteachers have the discretion to allow parents to take pupils out of school for 10 days.
12 weeks to court
Week 1: first day of absence noted by school and parent or carer is contacted. Case referred to education welfare officer if no satisfactory response after five days.
Week 2: appointment made to meet parent who is formally cautioned. Another meeting fixed for four weeks later.
Week 6: case returned to school for monitoring if there has been an improvement. If not, parent invited to meeting at the school or council office. And, if no good reason for continuing absences, court date sought.
Week 8: Information sent to the court for summons.
Week 12: Court appearance.
Source: Thurrock Council