Scourge of the skivers

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Amanda Goh is passionate about school attendance. Jill Parkin meets the education welfare officer who's zero-tolerant when it comes to truancy

Amanda Goh leans back at her desk and slips into estuary English: "Look, Mand. What's the point? Look at me. I got this nice council 'ouse. And my daughter, she'll get one too. That's a nice life. Frankly, Mand, why should she go to school?"

She's quoting a certain type of parent she meets all too often in her job as an education welfare officer for Essex. Once known officially as truancy officers and unofficially as kiddie-catchers, EWOs these days have a different target: parents.

"What am I s'posed to do about it? Send him to borstal. I went to borstal.

Didn't harm me. I can't make him go to school. Send him to borstal," mimics Ms Goh.

The law has moved on since today's parents were at school. Borstal is no more, and the legal responsibility for school attendance lies firmly with parents, so much so that they can be fined up to pound;2,500, and in some areas go to prison, if their children persistently miss school. "They can't just shrug their shoulders," says Ms Goh. "Every child has a right to an education, and parents need to realise that if they don't get them to school, they could face a fine, which means no family holiday this year.

The law says it's the parents' responsibility and I have no qualms about going to court, in spite of all the paperwork. It's all about the child."

Truancy sweeps grab headlines, but are fairly rare. The day-to-day work of an EWO is far more to do with building relationships with children and parents. "On one sweep, just before Christmas, we picked up 40 children in a shopping centre, and this isn't even a bad area for truancy. Alot of them were with their mothers. But most of the job is about interpersonal skills," says Ms Goh.

"It may be about saying to a mother, 'Yes, you have a nice council house, but maybe your daughter wants something different. She should be given a choice'. It may be about saying to a head, 'You need to write to this parent giving her five working days' notice to reply. This is what you need to write'. They're on an awful lot more money than me, but they don't want to write that letter. I've actually had heads say to parents afterwards, 'Well, the EWO made me write that letter'.

"And you have to make heads realise - especially heads of primary schools, where there's more contact with parents and everything is supposed to be lovey-dovey - that if they keep authorising absences, I cannot act. I can only act when unauthorised absences pile up. Some heads authorise because they want to meet their attendance targets. Well, that's not the most important thing, and the Government should realise that. It prevents us from tackling the issue."

Ms Goh is a tough-love character. In a job traditionally staffed by ex-military and ex-police personnel, an English literature graduate who dropped out of her PGCE might seem a likely pushover. Wrong. Her passionate belief in the life-changing power of education means nobody pushes Amanda Goh.

Her office is at Sandon school, a rural secondary just outside Chelmsford, Essex, but she also has responsibility for several primary schools. Sandon has few truancy problems, but Ms Goh is adamant that no school can justly claim to have none. "In most cases, we're dealing with non-attendance with parental knowledge," she says. 'The range of issues is enormous. For example, the most educated parents can be the hardest to deal with; you see some girls under such academic stress that they are self-harming and may be anorexic as well as not turning up at school.

"We've had grammar school boys caught in a shopping centre, smelling of alcohol and pretending it was all spontaneous, when they'd actually brought a change of clothing with them," she laughs. "They were so self-assured; so, 'Well, what does it matter?' I've never seen children change their attitude as fast as they did when their teacher turned up to get them himself."

Non-attendance is connected with bullying, hated curriculum subjects, playground enemies, home issues and transport difficulties. As well as sudden absence, Ms Goh and her colleagues look for patterns in non-attendance, and anything less than 85 per cent attendance can trigger parental prosecution. An 80 per cent attendance record is the equivalent of a day off a week.

"There are lots of things we do before that stage. It's important to listen to the child. Then we invite the parents in for a meeting with the teachers and myself. Sometimes it needs a curriculum tweak because there's a subject he or she hates. Well, if that's what it takes, it's possible, if the staff agree. Changing tutor groups is a popular request but we rarely do it because it hardly ever works. There's a line to be walked between encouraging a child into school and being taken for a ride.

"If there's an underlying problem we work with the child and family consultation service and, if appropriate, home tuition is possible, always with a view to reintegrating the child in school. I don't use the term school-phobic, because it's often something specific.

"It can be a transport problem; it can be that the child doesn't want to leave mum in case something happens to her. There are children dealing with things out there that no adult could deal with and then go into work.

Sometimes you need to make an assessment and you go to a house where you fear the parent may be violent, but I pull myself together and think, 'If I feel like this, how does the child feel?'

"A lot of my job is mediating between the school and the parent on behalf of the child. The idea of that three-way meeting is to draw up an action plan to be reviewed in four weeks. If it's not working, it's a warning letter to parents, and that includes absent fathers if they live in the county. A few weeks later, if there's no improvement, it's a pupil planning meeting at school with county legal reps and parents. Two weeks after that, if it hasn't worked, we prosecute."

Cases can go to a family court or a magistrates' court. A family court can issue an educational supervision order - a plan specifying what action the parent must take - and a non-compliant parent can be prosecuted for breach.

A magistrates' court can issue a fine of up to pound;2,500, or a prison sentence of up to three months under the fast track anti-truancy scheme being piloted in nine local authorities, give a conditional discharge or issue a parenting order.

"For some parents, just having a teacher say, 'I have to tell you the EWO is now aware of the problem', is enough, but parents who feel they are above the law; who think their term-time holiday is more important than the child's schooling, are a pain."

Ms Goh also takes part in PSHE lessons, banging home to children the message that going to school is part of life and a good preparation for the world of work, where they will have to put in the hours or risk losing their job.

"Whatever your background, education means you can be in charge of your life. My job is to make sure the children get the education they need. And, eventually, they're pleased they were put right."

Finally, she tells the story of a colleague who received a bunch of flowers from two Year 11 girls thanking her for sorting them out. One had been truanting to meet a young traveller boy, and on the card she'd written: "If it wasn't for you, I'd have been on the fair by now. Thanks."

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