Truancy should be a ‘child welfare issue’, say researchers

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Truancy should be a ‘child welfare issue’, say researchers

Prison bars: pic from Flickr by Jason Nahrung

In 2017 nine women were sent to prison and more than 16,000 people were prosecuted as a result of their children’s truancy, according to new research arguing for the issue to be decriminalised. More than seven out of 10 of those people convicted were women, according to the report by Rona Epstein and Geraldine Brown of Coventry University and Sarah O’Flynn of Roehampton. You can download the report here.

According to the researchers, the punitive approach harmed parents, children and vulnerable families and also ‘appears to be ineffective in getting reluctant and fearful children back into the classroom’. ‘The current law is cruel and discriminatory and does not achieve its purpose of reducing the number of children who do not attend school regularly,’ they wrote. ‘… the criminal law should not be applied to parents whose children do not attend school regularly. It should be a civil matter – a child welfare issue.’

If a child fails to attend school regularly the parent is guilty of an offence under the Education Act 1996 whether they knew that the child had missed school or not. You can be fined up to £2,500 or up to three months imprisonment. The new report titled ‘Prosecuting parents for truancy: who pays the price?’ found that the current system should not be using fines and the threat of prosecution as a fix.

According to the research, many of the children and young people who do not have regular attendance at school have special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND),often coupled with mental health issues. The report also finds that parents themselves are often on the autism spectrum or have various mental health illnesses of their own which result in them finding it difficult to ensure their child’s school attendance. Also, many parents who receive fines are from low-income households often struggling to pay fines between £60 to120supportingthe report’s findings that the families being targeted by these sanctions are already vulnerable.

Researchers drew on an online questionnaire hosted on online sites where parents discuss childcare issues and some 126 parents, mostly mothers, completed the anonymous survey. Nine out of 10 of the children had SEND or other health issues, including severe anxiety which led to night terrors and extreme reactions of fear when being prompted to go to school. Some parents also reported self-harm and suicide threats.Six out of 10 of the children had experienced some form of bullying – either by students or school staff.

When asked about their experience of the system, parents typically responded with ‘No understanding, no support’. Specifically, they mentioned that SEND discrimination was rife and that schools were imposing sanctions and behavioural management strategies on already vulnerable families and children.

The law is clear in that parents have a duty to ensure their child’s regular attendance at school. The offence of truancy is therefore deemed to have been committed by parents of school children who have failed to attend school regularly missing at least 10% of school sessions. If they are prosecuted for the offence, there is no need for the prosecution to prove whether the parent even had an intention to commit the offence, or whether they even knew that their child was missing which makes this a strict liability offence.

Womenweredisproportionately targeted for prosecutions and consequently being convicted. The research showed that in 2017,more than seven out of 10 of those prosecuted were women and of those convicted, almost three-quarters were women.

Some parents resorted to home-schooling as a solution to avoid the constant threat punitive measures. The report suggested that a decision to home-school a child which stems from fear of prosecution will often result in undue stress on parents and loss of earnings, among potential consequences which will inevitably hinder a child’s educational development.


In 2017:

  • 16,406:number of people in England and Wales prosecuted in 2017
  • 11,739:number of womenprosecuted (ie 71% of total)
  • 12,698:number of people convicted
  • 9,413:number of women prosecuted
  • 500:peoplegiven a community order
  • 10: number of people sent to prison
  • 9: women sent to prison