Truancy and the gesture politics of the right
With times hard for families as it is, rising food and fuel bills, simultaneously made worse by cuts to housing benefit, tax credits and the looming spectre of unemployment, the Conservative-led government is again piling on the pressure with the threat of withdrawal of child benefit payments for families of persistent truants.
An advisory panel on school attendance led by government’s ‘behaviour tsar’ Charlie Taylor, is recommending that child benefit payments be withdrawn from those parents failing to make their children attend school.
The plan entails a £10 rise in the fine already currently charged from £50 to £60. If unpaid after 28 days, the fine will double to £120. After this stage, the fine will be recovered from the parents child benefit payments.
This exemplifies the ultimate laziness of government policy making, a laziness most often seen in Conservative thinking. Instead of coming up with a meaningful strategy which seeks to re-engage persistence truants, we see another policy which will bear down hardest on those with the least.
Truancy is a massive problem in Britain. There were 57 million days of school missed in 2009/2010. As one might expect, there is the obvious and clear link between truancy and poor academic performance. Of pupils who miss more than 50% of school in a year, only 3% achieve the required five GCSE’s at grades A*-C. But there is also substantial evidence of a link between truancy, poor academic performance, and social background.
The New Labour government spent in excess of £1 billion on strategies to improve school attendance rates. They had very little impact. The Labour government published statistics in February 2008 pointing towards a slight improvement, but also noted that the problem had far from gone away. It said, ‘A significant minority of children continue to miss large amounts of their schooling. In 2007 just seven per cent of pupils in maintained secondary schools accounted for 32 per cent of all absence and 62 per cent of unauthorised absence’.
The truth is that truancy is a very hard problem for government to come up with a permanent fix for. Although successive governments try in vain to bring down truancy rates, the truth is there will always be a stubborn minority who do not engage properly with the education system. Truancy rates, save for some slight fluctuations, have remained static since the 1920s.
This is for a whole host of reasons, many of them to do with social background. For many young absentees, school is a hostile place. With little cultural capital to speak of, some pupils are simply overwhelmed by the prospect of education they cannot understand, and pressured too much and too fast by school’s constant emphasis on rigorous testing and examination.
The government’s plans to fine parents through their child benefit payments will do nothing to change this. It is an attempt to break the cycle of truancy, and force parents to take responsibility. But all it succeeds in doing is perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Not enough carrot and too much stick. If we want to break the cycle of educational underachievement and poor school attendance, we need to positively engage truants and their families, rather than further alienating them from the very system we so desperately want them to be a part of.
Government cuts in local authority provision will of course affect school’s ability to cope with the problem of truancy. Education Welfare Officers, those on the frontline of working with persistent truants, have faced drastic cuts to their department budgets. The Association of Education Welfare Managers has shown that out of 49 local authorities, 28 are facing cuts to staffing budgets, and in 13 local areas, these cuts will amount to between 50% and 100%.
If the government were in any way serious about starting a ‘crackdown’ on truancy, it wouldn’t have cut large swathes of the profession responsible for keeping truancy rates down and helping persistent truants return to school. It wouldn’t be seeking to reintroduce a Victorian system of fines and penalties, whilst simultaneously taking away those people with the most constructive input into the problem of truancy.
Instead, the government is seeking to bear down hardest on those with the least. The stresses of recession hit Britain, especially for those on low incomes, are hurting. Fining families for the actions of a truanting child is not just deeply unfair, but counterproductive in the long run.
There are a number of ways to frame this debate in a positive light. After all, wasn’t David Cameron’s Big Society about involving local community leaders, youth workers, charities and having them help to fill the role of the state?
The truancy problem is one which is going to require a multi-faceted approach and a multi-agency strategy. Bringing down truancy rates is not going to be achieved by fining parents, or enforcing it by taking it out of their child benefit. This is simply going to exacerbate a problem, leaving families and young children to bear the brunt of financial penalties in these austere times.
The government needs to seek a more positive solution to the problem of truancy. It could do this by reversing cuts to educational welfare officers, a backbone of any schools response to the issue of truancy. It could also seek to set up dedicated units in schools, incorporating education welfare officers and youth workers to tackle the problem of disengagement with the education system. To tackle the problem of truancy, we must seek a policy of positive reinforcement and constructive help, not more gesture politics from the right.
Tom Sadler is a history and politics student at Goldsmiths College, University of London