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Truants' parents feel force of law

The Greenwich escort order has been hailed as the courts' new hard line on absenteeism. James Montgomery reports

The mother of a persistent truant has been ordered by a court to escort her son to school every day, in a case which confirms magistrates' willingness to tackle absenteeism.

In the first case of its kind, a stipendiary magistrate in Greenwich, south-east London, granted the single parent bail on condition that she hands the 13-year-old boy over to a teacher in person.

Lewisham council took the mother to court after the boy missed half of the 1996 spring term. Numerous visits and letters from education social workers had failed to bring any improvement in attendance.

Last August magistrates in Solihull, West Midlands, put a mother on three years' probation after supervision orders imposed on her two sons produced only short-term improvements in their attendance.

The mother was warned that any breach of the probation order would make her liable for a fine or community service. Since then, her sons' attendance has improved dramatically.

Taken together, the cases suggest the courts are open to new ways of responding to general concern about truancy.

Last year the public sector union Unison claimed that more than 800,000 children played truant in Britain, making the problem more widespread than official figures suggest.

Lewisham's firm line on unauthorised classroom absences - it prosecutes up to 50 parents a year - is cited by Labour as an example of good practice. Gavin Moore, chair of education, said the results speak for themselves: "As an inner-city authority, you would expect us to have high levels of truancy but in fact we have got one of the lowest in London."

While the council recognised the importance of addressing the social problems that caused truancy, the threat of legal action, or the shock of appearing in court, was a useful tool, Mr Moore added.

"Once children stop attending school, they very quickly find themselves at the bottom of the pile and end up as the sort of kids who leave school with no qualifications. In cases where there is an element of parents condoning truancy, we are prepared to take action."

Professor Michael Barber, an adviser to Labour on education who in January proposed that legal action should be taken against parents who failed to attend school parent evenings, added: "Lewisham's initiative is to be very much welcomed. It raises the priority and status of the parent in ensuring children go to school."

Labour's commitment to ensuring parents make their children go to school is part of Tony Blair's espousal of social rights and responsibilities.

Jack Straw, the party's home affairs spokesman, has considered issuing children with identity cards which could be signed by teachers or parents to authorise absences from school. Police would be given the power to inspect the cards of children seen out of school.

Meanwhile the Government has increased the maximum fine for parents who fail to ensure their children attend school regularly from Pounds 400 to Pounds 1,000.

Courts have also been given extra powers to bind over negligent parents or issue orders enforcing attendance.

While it is the responsibility of local education authorities to enforce attendance, each can decide for itself what approach to take and how many education welfare officers to employ. In September 1994 there were 2,689 education welfare officers employed by LEAs, an average of 25 per council.

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