Truancy falls after jailing of mother

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Attendance has improved since Patricia Amos was imprisoned over daughters' absenteeism. Biddy Passmore reports

SCHOOLS are still reaping the benefits of the ground-breaking jail sentence passed on Banbury mother Patricia Amos eight months ago for the truancy of her daughters.

Emma and Jackie Amos are now models of regular attendance at Banbury school, according to principal Fiona Hammans. Jackie, now in Year 11, even arrives early in the morning to help out with the school's breakfast club.

"It's been a complete turnaround," says Dr Hammans. "There's been no long-term or unauthorised absence by the two girls whatever." The 60-day jail sentence (reduced on appeal) passed on Mrs Amos last May had been "draconian but successful", she added.

Mrs Amos publicly admitted she deserved the punishment and said: "It has brought me to my senses."

But it is not just the Amos family who have seen the light. Dr Hammans says overall attendance at the 1,650-pupil school improved to nearly 93 per cent in 2002 and is the highest it has been for at least five years. Unauthorised absence, at 1.2 per cent, is at its lowest ever.

Christina Deas, head of the educational welfare service in north Oxfordshire, said there was no doubt that the local impact of the case had been "enormous".

"A lot more parents now attend meetings with education social workers and they are far less likely not to turn up at court," she said.

Secondary school attendance in north Oxfordshire, at 92.3 per cent, is now higher and improving faster than in the rest of the county and is better than the national average of 91.3 per cent, said Mrs Deas. She stressed this was due not just to the "Amos effect" but also to strategies such as truancy sweeps.

In other parts of the country, the long-term effect of the case is less certain. Jail sentences for truancy imposed on mothers in Brighton and Ipswich over Christmas do not appear to have had much local impact. Immediately after the Banbury sentence hit the news, heads all over the country reported the reappearance of long-lost pupils.

"It was on GMTV and at 8.25am that day parents were dragging their kids into school," says Anthony Edkins, head of Falmer high school in deprived east Brighton.

But Mr Edkins credits a range of strategies for the school's five-year improvement from 83 to more than 90 per cent.

Monica Galt, head of the 500-pupil Kings Road primary in inner Manchester, says the Banbury case is having a long-term effect. Her new parent liaison officer shows cuttings of the case to parents whose children are absent or late. "I've heard parents saying, 'you get out of bed in the morning - I'm not going to jail for you'." But she thought the effect might fizzle out.

John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association said the Amos case had had a permanent effect on the system. "Before it, many heads felt they were working against the tide, with very little support from LEAs and the Government," he said. "That tide has now turned."

Analysis, 22

A POWERFUL DETERRENT

Since Patricia Amos was jailed last May, two more mothers have been sent to prison for failing to ensure their children attend school.

A woman from Brighton was given a one-week sentence just before Christmas after repeated warnings about the truancy of her two daughters aged 12 and 14.

And a woman in Ipswich, Suffolk, who was six months pregnant, spent Christmas in prison starting a 28-day sentence for failing to make her daughter attend school. Neither mother can be named for legal reasons.

But in Blackburn, magistrates gave a mother a conditional discharge in December after hearing that their threat to jail her had turned her truant son into a model pupil. Michael Cocker, 15, had missed only one day through illness since his mother Linda was first taken to court.

These parents have been charged with the new offence of aggravated truancy. The maximum penalty is pound;2,500 andor up to three months in prison.

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