THE PARENTS of truants could face fines of up to pound;5,000 under proposals announced by Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett at the Labour Party conference.
In his keynote platform speech he said: "Parents have to face up to their responsibilities. A new, higher fine will reinforce the importance of education for all children. It will also show magistrates and the wider community how seriously we take the problem of truancy."
Too often, he said, parents of persistent truants are fined no more than pound;20 and even the current maximum penalty of pound;1,000 places parents who regularly keep their children off school on a par with those who who don't buy a TV licence.
"Some heads tell me they have to civilise children before they can teach them," he told the conference. "Let's get tough with those that get tough with our teachers."
An estimated 16 million half-day sessions at school are missed each year through truanting. One study found that 44 per cent of truants believed their parents knew they were not going to school. Mr Blunkett also used his speech to announce a pound;60 million programme of community projects in 40 of the most deprived local authorities in England.
The Neighbourhood Support Fund will be targeted at teenagers who have lost contact with education, training and work. The scheme will complement Excellence in the Cities and local authorities have been invited to devise experimental ideas to re-engage disaffected young people.
He said: "The money will be directed to those local community organisations that are in touch with what is happening on the ground - organisations that young people know and trust."
Mr Blunkett's spirits were high during conference week. He believes the teacher unions are being more positive about the Government's performance-related pay proposals and he was optimistic about the prospects for its Excellence in Cities initiative, designed to improve urban schools. And the "debate" that followed his speech consisted entirely of a succession of delegates praising his work.
But his anti-truancy initiative provoked a sceptical reaction from the teacher unions. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said:
"The Education Welfare Service tell us they have hundreds of cases that could go to court but fear it would make the situation worse to carry out the threat."
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said: "We need to be careful the policy of criminalising parents doesn't rebound upon teachers and undermine the trust necessary to get the confidence of parents and truants."
However, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association said taking parents to court will remind them they have responsibilities as well as rights."