New research from Rona Epstein, Geraldine Brown and Sarah O’Flynn sheds a light on the rarely examined subject of parents taken to court for not ensuring their children go to school. Prosecuting parents for truancy: who pays the price? examines the reasons that lie behind children failing to attend school regularly, what problems this created for the family, the parents’ views of how the schools tackled their child’s problems, and the reasons for parental prosecution.
In England and Wales, the offence of truancy is deemed to have been committed by parents or carers of school age children whose children have not attended school regularly. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 sets out a parental duty to secure the efficient education of children by ensuring the child’s regular attendance at school or otherwise and the punishment can be a fine of up to £2,500 or imprisonment.
In 2017 16,406 people were prosecuted, of whom 11, 739 (71%) were women.
- 12, 698 were convicted, of whom 9,413 (74%) were women.
- 110 people were given a suspended sentence of imprisonment, 88 (80%) were women.
- 500 were given a community order – 416 (83%) were women.
- 100 people were given a suspended prison sentence, 79 (79%) were women.
- Ten people were sent to prison, 9 were women.
The researchers circulated an online survey via various parent forums and Facebook pages relating to childcare and received 126 responses (120 mothers, 3 fathers, 2 foster-carers and 1 “parent”).
Almost all the respondents reported that their child was anxious, often highly anxious. They described night terrors, extreme reactions of fear when it was time to go to school. About 40% of the children in this sample have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many of them had other health issues. 90% of the children had SEND (Special Educational Needs/Disability) or a health problem. All the parents reported that it was impossible to force their fearful and panicky children into school.
Some parents had reacted to the fear of prosecution by taking their children of the school roll. While some home-schooled their children, others were not receiving any structured education.
Lack of resources was a key issue in survey responses. Many parents reported that one-to-one support in school for their child had been begun but not sustained, or recommended by the educational psychologist but not implemented. Long waits for diagnoses and for assessment and support from CAMHS were also common.
Bullying was a key issue. 60% of children had been bullied, most by other children but a significant number by staff. A few parents reported effective action by school to tackle bullying. However, the more usual response by schools was to ignore bullying, to deny that it happens, or to blame the ‘over-sensitive’ victim or the child’s over-protective parents. Restorative justice is used successfully by some schools to deal with bullying issues.
42 parents in the survey (34%) had been prosecuted or threatened with prosecution. Among them are some of those facing the most severe challenges and under particular stress. For example one mother, a single parent whose 11 year-old son is autistic and highly anxious, was threatened with a fine. Another was fined though both she and her son suffer from multiple illnesses.
The researchers acknowledge that their sample of respondents is self-selected and inevitably unrepresentative. However, they point out that there is no official information on the 16,400 parents prosecuted every year and argue strongly that the MoJ should commission research about a group of these parents and provide researchers with identifying information of those who are prosecuted.