Truant children: Parents in Wales face fines up to £120

Pupils are rewarded at some schools for good attendance

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Parents will be fined if their children are regular truants from school under plans by the Welsh government.

Ministers previously resisted bringing in fixed penalties, despite being used in some parts of England since 2004.

But Education Minister Leighton Andrews has put tackling truancy high on a list of actions to improve educational attainment.

He has ordered officials to draw up regulations on penalties of up to £120 for the parents of persistent truants.

The Welsh government has previously said fixed penalties for parents did not fit its "inclusion policies".

Education expert Professor Ken Reid, who has advised the Welsh government on truancy and behaviour, said introducing them now risked hitting the poorest families.

'Vulnerable'

YOUNG 'DON'T UNDERSTAND'

Annette Williams' son, who had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, played truant , and she believes pupils need help.

She said: "All parents are tarred with the same brush.

"My son was taller than me and stronger than me and I couldn't get him out of bed.

"I sat him down and encouraged him to go and explained that he would have a better future, but it went over his head.

"I received a letter and explained to my son that I would be fined and if I couldn't afford it - which I couldn't - I would go to prison, but it went over his head. I don't think they understand.

"I think teachers should put them into another class and explain that this is their future. I think they would listen to older people than parents.

"Other parents should try to encourage them to get help as soon as possible and talk to other parents as there is help out there."

Prof Reid, of Swansea Metropolitan University, said: "The weakness of the proposal is that it is likely to target some of the most vulnerable parents and those living close to the poverty line.

"Under European law all parents of a similar position are treated equally.

"You would have to have specific grounds for having people who are going to receive fines if you are not collecting fines from parents in exactly the same position."

Civil servants have met each of the 22 local authorities to discuss their truancy statistics and what can be done to improve their figures, including issuing fixed penalty notices.

In 2010/11 the highest rate of unauthorised absence from secondary schools was in Cardiff at 2.9%, while Flintshire, Powys and Neath Port Talbot had the lowest rate at 0.5%.

For primary schools, the highest rate was 1.7% in the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff, while Monmouthshire had the lowest at 0.2%.

A Welsh government spokesperson said: "The minister has raised concerns about levels of absenteeism in Welsh schools and we are exploring how a system of penalty notices for regular non-attendance at school in Wales could work in practice alongside other strategies and support system already available.

Penalty notices

"We aim to publish a comprehensive consultation on this in September where the system of penalty notices and its operation will set out the proposals in more detail."

'PARENTS' RESPONSIBILITY'

Simon Warr, originally from Cardiff and who teaches at an independent school in Suffolk, backs fixed penalties.

He said: "Most other civilised countries, teaching and learning have the highest status and you begin to wonder if that is the case here in Britain.

"Truancy has escalated over the last 20 years, in part, due to the lack of support of parents but we have to get the message across to parents that a free education is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"That message has to be conveyed in the strongest possible terms.

"Truancy can wreck a child's prospects. High achievement often means fulfilment and success. Attending school every day is very important.

"It's partly the parents' problem because they don't see the value of school themselves.

"It is their responsibility to ensure their child reaches school.

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said councils would welcome the minister's proposals.

"Fixed penalty notices would be an additional tool to address truancy and it's important for us to remember that action will only be taken after considerable efforts have been made by the education welfare service to improve the pupils' attendance," said a WLGA spokesman.

He added that education officials currently address truancy issues by making numerous visits to the family home, assessing problems and offering support.

"Currently, where there is failure to improve attendance during intervention due to the lack of commitment by the family, this can result in the authority issuing the appropriate notice of intent to prosecute," added the spokesman.

In England, where penalty notices for truancy have been in force since 2004, 32,641 penalty notices were issued in 2010/11 - increasing from 25,657 in 2009/10 and 20,887 in 2008/09.

Unauthorised absences in secondary schools

LEA 2002/2003 2010/2011

Source: Statistics Wales. Percentage of half-day sessions missed due to unauthorised absences

Anglesey

1.4%

1.3%

Gwynedd

0.8

1

Conwy

1

1.6

Denbighshire

1.6

1.4

Flintshire

0.7

0.5

Wrexham

0.9

1.6

Powys

0.7

0.5

Ceredigion

0.8

1.2

Pembrokeshire

1.3

0.9

Carmarthenshire

0.9

0.8

Neath Port Talbot

0.6

0.5

Swansea

3.1

1.6

Bridgend

1.5

1.7

Vale of Glamorgan

1

1.5

Rhondda Cynon Taf

2.2

1.8

Merthyr Tydfil

0.7

0.9

Caerphilly

1.9

2.1

Blaenau Gwent

1

2.1

Torfaen

1.4

1.3

Monmouthshire

0.8

0.6

Newport

2

2

Cardiff

3.4

2.9

All Wales

1.6%

1.5%

There has been a fall of around 21% in the same period in the number of pupils absent for a fifth or more of school time.

A study in England published by the Department for Education found fixed penalty notices were associated in some circumstances with improving attendance in the short term, but this was more difficult to sustain in the long run.

However, the evaluation found more than three quarters (79%) of respondents viewed the notices as being "very successful" or "fairly successful" in improving attendance.

Plaid Cymru's education spokesman Simon Thomas AM questioned whether fines would hit the poorest families hardest, and said there needed to be a change in culture and support for teachers.

"The Welsh government claims to be prioritising the needs of the poorest and protecting those most at risk of poverty and exclusion.

"How does targeting the most vulnerable in society fit in with this?"

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