Truancy fines should be deducted from child benefit, says behaviour adviser

Truancy fines should be deducted from child benefit, says behaviour adviser

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar

Truancy

The government’s adviser on behaviour wants fines for truancy to rise to £60. Photograph: Bubbles Photolibrary /Alamy

Headteachers should be able to impose increased fines on parents whose children miss school without a valid reason and the money will be docked automatically from child benefit if they fail to pay, a government adviser has said.

Proposals published on Monday by the government’s expert adviser on behaviour, Charlie Taylor, would allow schools to impose fines of £60 for truancy, rising to£120 if they are not paid within 28 days.

The money would be recovered automatically from child benefit if parents failed to pay within that time. Parents who do not receive child benefit and fail to pay fines would have the money recovered through county courts.

Currently, parents of children who play truant face a fine of£50, rising to £100 if unpaid after 28 days.

Taylor’s review of truancy will call for a crackdown on term-time holiday, with absence only allowed in “exceptional circumstances”. In the past school year, term-time holiday was the reason for 9.5% of absences from school, up from 9.3% the previous year.

The education watchdog, Ofsted, will also be urged to set timed targets for improving attendance in schools where there are high rates of truancy.

Taylor is due to say: “We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine. It means the penalty has no effect and children continue to lose vital days of education they can never recover.

“Recouping the fines through child benefit … will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give headteachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part.”

A report on the effectiveness of fines, commissioned by the last government, found that 79% of local authorities said penalty notices were “very successful” or “fairly successful” in improving school attendance, but councils felt court action was often a long-winded process that achieved little.

In 2010, out of 9,147 parents taken to court and found guilty over their children’s truancy, only 6,591 received a fine or a more serious sanction. The average fine imposed by the court was£165.

Fines for school absence were introduced by the Labour government in 2004 and the levels of the fines have not been revised since then.

Taylor, the headteacher of a special school in west London, is currently on secondment as an expert adviser on behaviour to the government, which is expected to adopt his recommendations.

His review calls on all primary schools to analyse their data on attendance to quickly identify children who are developing a pattern of absence.

He will say: “The earlier schools address poor attendance patterns, the less likely it is that they will become a long-term issue. The best primary schools realise this and take a rigorous approach to poor attendance from the very start of school life.”

Education secretary Michael Gove announced the review of sanctions for truancy in a speech made after the riots last year. Gove said policing of the existing sanctions was “weak”.

“When fines are imposed, they are often reduced to take account of an adult’s expenditure on satellite TV, alcohol and cigarettes. And many appear to shrug off fines and avoid existing sanctions, refusing to take responsibility for their actions,” he said.

More than 32,600 penalty notices for school absence were issued to parents last year, and more than 127,000 have been issued since their introduction in 2004. However, about half of all notices have gone unpaid or been withdrawn; schools or local authorities have to withdraw the penalty notice if it is unpaid after 42 days. The only further option is to prosecute parents.

Are Fines The Best Way To Improve Attendance in Schools?

Truancy fines should be deducted from child benefit, says behaviour adviser

Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour advisor has advocated deducting fines for truancy from families’ child benefit payments. The suggestion forms part of a package of proposals published on 16th April 2012 designed to reduce schools’ truancy levels. The proposals also include increasing the current fines levied to £60 or £120 if they aren’t paid within 28 days. Unpaid fines would be recovered from child benefit. For families not in receipt of child benefit the outstanding sum would be recovered through the county courts. Taylor’s review will also recommend a clampdown on term-time holidays and Ofsted based time targets for reducing truancy in schools where there are exceptionally high levels of absenteeism. As part of his announcement Charlie Taylor will say:

“We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine. It means the penalty has no effect and children continue to lose vital days of education they can never recover. Recouping the fines through child benefit … will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give headteachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part.”

The review is partially based on a report of the effectiveness of fines which included a survey of schools and local authorities. 79% of LAs said that penalty notices were either “very successful” or “fairly successful” in improving school attendance. But schools believed that court action was a long winded process that didn’t achieve much.  Fines for school absences were introduced by the last Labour administration in 2004 and since then 127,000 penalty notices have been issued including 32,600 last year. Of these approximately half have been unpaid or withdrawn. Under the current system penalty notices have to be withdrawn by LAs if they are unpaid after 42 days.

Are Fines The Best Way To Improve Attendance in Schools?

At first glance it would appear to be a simple, common sense response to the issue of non-payment of fines.  In theory it would seem to be a straightforward method of ensuring that unpaid penalties are received.  But, we believe that there is more to this than meets the eye.  Firstly, if 50% of the fines aren’t paid one must consider the reasons behind this high failure rate of the penalty notice. Is it because the families concerned cannot afford to pay the penalties or is it because they are refusing to pay out of a lack of respect for authority? A comparison of the percentage of penalties paid with the response of the LAs on improvement in attendance rates would suggest that in many cases the serving of the fine is enough to encourage increased attendance even if the fine is not actually paid.  It doesn’t take too much analysis to realise that this would be due to the majority of families involved being unable to afford the fines. In these cases therefore, to actually impose the fine would only create further hardship for families who are already at the lower end of the income scale.  This is not to say that a small minority of parents are just abusing the system and more stringent measures are required in those situations.

Furthermore, the proposed measures would also penalise parents wishing to take their children out of school for term-time holidays.  According to an article in the Guardian on 12th February 2012 approximately 4.5m school days are missed due to term-time holidays. In that piece the main reason given for this is the lower cost of out of season holidays. Additionally, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders points out that the 10 days afforded to some families are discretionary and not an actual right but have come to be seen as a cultural expectation.  But even in this area of absenteeism there are at least two types of family involved and matters are not black and white: there are those who cannot afford holidays during the school break and there are families who need to work during the holidays. Some of Kip McGrath Scunthorpe’s parents run businesses that require them to work during the Summer and taking a holiday during July and August would cost them a high proportion of their annual income. At least one school head was unwilling to accept this viewpoint and pressed ahead with fining the parents.

The reality, is that the system does not meet the requirements of 21st Century families. Many parents are unable to afford holidays if they are not taken during term-time and the proposals will do nothing more than penalise hardworking parents for trying to spend quality time with their children by providing them with a family holiday.  If a child is removed from school for a term-time holiday of 10 days every year for their school career up to Year 11 they will miss approximately 5% of their schooling; a figure which falls well below the DfE’s own level of 15% absenteeism as being persistent truanting and a cause for concern. In an ideal world every child would have a 100% attendance record but that is simply not a realistic expectation.  So are we going to fine parents who choose to remove their children for limited periods with positive motivations?

What Is The Solution?

This country is home to a wide variety of families from wide-ranging socio-economic backgrounds and schools seek to educate children with a whole host of educational, emotional and physical needs.  Every family is different to the next one. Therefore, to use a one size fits all approach is narrow minded and misguided.

  • With regard to term-time holidays each family’s circumstances must be taken into account regardless of the school’s overall attendance rates. If a child is meeting their educational targets and their attendance is generally very good there should be no reason to refuse the parents’ request for a term-time absence.  If however, the child’s attendance is poor and they are already behind in their education then it isn’t reasonable for the parents to try to remove them during term-time for a holiday. In these cases it might be possible to look at imposing a compulsory, Summer catch up programme for the student to complete at the parent’s expense through a local tuition centre. At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we run a successful Summer School every August to help prevent children from falling behind during the long Summer holidays.  Rather than levying a fine which probably won’t be paid and does nothing to benefit the child’s education even if is, there will be an educational gain and the parent may feel more motivated to accept the penalty because they will see a postive outcome for their child.
  • General absenteeism is not so easy to solve and each family’s case must be considered on it’s merits. For example, if a parent drops a child off at school on their way to work and the child fails to attend without the parent’s knowledge is it fair to penalise the parent? Any responsibility should fall on the school if they allow the child to leave the premises during the school day or the child if they fail to attend without the parent’s knowledge. Investigations would need to be made to find out why the child is playing truant. If a parent is failing to send their child to school then support mechanisms must be put in place if there are valid reasons why they are unable to cope. An article in the Guardian on 3rd April 2012 on kinder ways to tackle truancy highlighted the work of School Home Support, a charity that provides support workers in schools whose job is to identify children with low attendance and provide support for them and their families.

This does not mean that some kind of financial penalty would never be appropriate but there are too many reasons for absenteesim and too many children who are absent because of unmet needs. Arbitrary fines will simply further disenfranchise those who already mistrust authority, unnecessarily penalise hard-working families who want to spend quality time with their children and drive a percentage of deprived families deeper into poverty when it may well be the effects of poverty that is causing the low attendance in the first place. Taking things all round we would recommend a more creative and flexible approach that shows compassion for the less well off and meets the needs of modern families.

New scheme succeeds in keeping excluded children in mainstream school

New scheme succeeds in keeping excluded children in mainstream school

The Guardian World News |by Liz Lightfoot

Martin Bacon at Swavesey village college in Cambridgeshire

Martin Bacon at Swavesey village college in Cambridgeshire. The scheme is being adopted by eight other authorities. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

At the age of 10, Finley was excluded from primary school and spent the next three years at a unit for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, still unable to control his temper, and heading for the dole queue.

Now 16, he is at one of the most sought-after secondary schools in Cambridgeshire, has four early-entry GCSEs including maths and English, is expected to get another four this summer and will start a college course in music technology in September.

His life has been transformed and he says it is due to the staff at Swavesey village college, an over-subscribed comprehensive that gave him a place three years ago.

“I’m so grateful to this school because if I’d stayed at the other place, I would probably have left with nothing. It used to be an outburst of rage, but now I can see it coming. When I feel edgy and am feeling that something is going to go wrong, all I have to do is tell someone and I can go to the inclusion centre to do my work or even take five, get out and have a breather,” he says.

Finley is one of hundreds of children permanently excluded from schools in Cambridgeshire who are being brought back into mainstream education by a groundbreaking initiative that gives funding for alternative education directly to headteachers, instead of via the local authority as it did in the past. Rather than excluding children and expecting the local authority to educate them, schools now retain responsibility for the progress and results of those they take out of mainstream classes.

Schools should take ownership of every student, not show them the door, says Martin Bacon, Swavesey’s principal. “I take a very strong view that some students are square pegs in round holes and what schools have traditionally done is keep hitting at them until they splinter. We need to be much more creative in what we provide for our most vulnerable students. Inclusion is about achievement, not containment,” he says.

The scheme has turned the system on its head: Normally when a school excludes a pupil, parents are required to supervise their child for up to six days, at which point the local authority assumes responsibility for their education – and picks up the bill. Many end up in expensive local-authority-run pupil referral units (PRU) – schools for children who are too disruptive to be educated alongside their peers – where places cost upwards of £16,000 a year, compared to around £4,500 for a school place at a mainstream school.

Cambridgeshire has put the £5.4m it was spending on excluded children into school budgets. Working with other local schools (known as inclusion partnerships), headteachers now decide what kind of alternative education the pupils need and go out and buy it. Most recognise that a PRU is not necessarily the best place for a disruptive child; across England only 1.4% of PRU pupils achieve five or more good GCSE grades including maths and English against a national average of 57%. So shopping around for education that suits the needs of each individual child not only saves money, it also gives pupils a fighting chance of success.

The results have been dramatic. Since the scheme began four years ago, five of the six local authority-run PRUs have been closed as demand for places dropped from 650 in 2007 to 120 this year. Swavesey, and seven other schools in its South Cambridgeshire partnership, have decided not to send any pupil to a PRU because they risk leaving education with no qualifications.

Tom Jefford, who is responsible for participation and young people’s services across Cambridgeshire, says giving funding directly to schools has been a real game changer. ”It is not yet perfect but it is keeping many more children in the mainstream. Schools now feel accountable for difficult children, whereas before they didn’t. There is a lot of discussion about children in alternative education, whereas before they were out through the door. Sometimes it hasn’t taken that much to keep them at school.”

Working in partnership with local schools means resources can be stretched further. Swavesey village college gets £134,000 of Cambridgeshire’s £5.4m inclusion budget, of which 10% is held back by the partnership for joint developments, such as the employment of extra mental health and family workers.

“The schools in the partnership take collective responsibility for all the children in the area,” says Bacon, citing the recent example of a pupil facing exclusion, who moved to another school in the partnership for a fresh start. The originating school now pays the other £8,000 a year to fund one-to-one support from a teaching assistant.

Investment in quality vocational education is also crucial. If pupils find something that interests them, they are far more likely to engage with core curriculum subjects such as English and maths, says Bacon. Swavesey has well equipped hairdressing and beauty studios managed by a qualified professional.  Old bike sheds have been transformed into a motor workshop with a car and bikes for students to work on and there is a centre for teaching electrical circuits, a painting and decorating studio and an area for bricklaying

Having access to additional funds has enabled the school to employ specialists such as Rebecca Crow, the inclusion centre manager, who has a small staff and a bank of qualified teachers who come in part-time to work one-to-one with pupils.

Clearly this is an approach that could work in other areas. Around 5,200 secondary-aged children are permanently excluded across England and most of them end up in pupil referral units. A recent report by Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner, claims the numbers could be far higher because some pupils are being illegally and unofficially banned from classes.

What is happening in Cambridgeshire is being closely monitored by the Department for Education and when schools return from the Easter break next week, the model will be adopted by around 300 schools in eight other authorities across England as part of a national inclusion pilot organised by the department.

The government’s eagerness to be involved could be down to fears that the increase in self-governing academies and free schools, which are not accountable to local authorities, may lead to an increase in permanent exclusions.

In addition, in the past parents have had the right to appeal against a permanent exclusions to an independent panel (made up of headteachers, parents and other members of the local community) that had the power to force schools to take pupils back if they felt they had been unfairly excluded. But under new legislation, introduced as part of the 2011 Education Act, independent appeal panels no longer have this power.

Not everyone is convinced that giving funding for alternative education directly to schools is the answer. The teacher unions are keeping a close eye on the policy, anxious that the approach, which will inevitably result in having more challenging pupils in mainstream schools, could disrupt lessons and pose health and safety risks.

But pupils back the policy. “Miss Crow is a legend, she always listens to us. Without her we would have been kicked out long ago and it’s better to be in school than out of it,” says one 14-year-old pupil at Swavesey.

Finley agrees: “From first-hand experience, I know that excluding people doesn’t do any good. I know people who will leave with nothing. There may be a few who wouldn’t succeed in a mainstream environment, but most could be integrated, bit by bit, as they did with me.”

A kinder way to tackle truancy

A kinder way to tackle truancy

The Guardian World News

Child alone in school playground

School Home Support helped 4,000 families last year. Photograph: Alamy

It’s 8am on a Wednesday and six-year-old Samir is being woken up for school. Not by his mother, father or two older brothers, but by Shelley, who is paid by Samir’s state primary school to ensure he is ready and on time for lessons today. Samir’s mother, Fatima, sits wearily on a battered armchair as Shelley goes through her checklist.

“Teeth and hair brushed?”

Samir nods.

“Fresh pair of pants and socks on?”

Nod.

“Yesterday’s maths worksheet in your file?”

Nod.

Before Samir and Shelley set off for school, Shelley checks the fridge and kitchen cupboards to make sure there’s food for supper and for tomorrow’s breakfast.

“Have you got enough medication for the rest of the week?”Shelley asks Fatima. She nods gratefully and waves them goodbye.

Until last spring, Samir had missed on average one day of school a week for the past two years – and sometimes whole weeks at a time. Fatima, who has tried to take her life on more than one occasion and looks after her sons on her own, often feels too depressed to get out of bed. Samir used to stay at home, in Forest Gate, east London, sitting with his mother, watching TV and buying food from the corner shop.

Then Samir’s primary school, Woodgrange Infant’s in Newham, tried a new method of reducing truancy – one that had already taken off in more than 150 schools in England. The school took on a School Home Support worker, Shelley Clarke, whose job it is to identify pupils with low attendance records and play surrogate parent to them.

Unlike teachers, who are confined to the classroom and playground, Shelley works with children in their homes, checking they are ready for school in the mornings and that they have done their homework and are in bed at a sensible hour.

Of course, all of this is done with the parents’ permission and the hardest slog of all is convincing them that attendance at school is not just important, but crucial to their child’s future success. The consequences of missing out on weeks or months of lessons, particularly for a primary-school-aged pupil, can be catastrophic. In subjects such as maths and English, where learning is incremental, it can be extremely difficult for a child to catch up if they are absent when their peers are learning the basics.

Government data shows that just 35% of pupils who miss a month or more of lessons in primary or secondary school each year manage to achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths. However 73% of those whose attendance is 95% or more reach this standard. Meanwhile, just 3% of teenagers who miss more than half of school achieve such results.

Fatima didn’t take much convincing that Samir should be at school, Shelley says. She felt guilty about how many lessons he was missing, but she just couldn’t get herself into a regular routine to ensure he got to school on time – or at all. Since Shelley started calling on him last year, Samir’s attendance has risen from 85% to 91%.

The School Home Support charity, which trains Shelley and almost 100 others like her across the country, has its work cut out. Government figures out last week showed that more than a million pupils in England miss half a day or more of school each week. In Nottingham and Liverpool, almost 10% of pupils miss a month or more of school each year. Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said on Tuesday that truancy is a “serious problem” for the coalition and that primary schools, in particular, could be doing more to challenge poor attendance.

Overall, the proportion of pupils playing truant has dropped in the last few years, but not by much. In 2009-2010, 6.8% of pupils in secondary and primary schools missed a month or more of their lessons each year. The latest figures, from 2010-11, show that this has now fallen to 6.1%.

While some children are off for long-term sickness, “many can and should be in school,” a Department for Education briefing note says. “Primary schools seem to be more reluctant to challenge poor attendance than secondary schools with the result that some families get into bad habits … the message can be inadvertently given to parents that attendance at primary school is not as important as it is in secondary school.”

The government’s behaviour tsar, Charlie Taylor, has suggested that headteachers cut truancy by imposing fines of up to£100 on parents who persistently keep their children out of school for no reason. Last December, Taylor said that primary schools were “a bit too nice and fluffy” when it came to challenging parents on attendance.

But few schools have chosen to do this and more are opting instead for the School Home Support model. Sarah Soyler, the headteacher of Samir’s school, says that there exists a growing number of parents with complex problems, often related to poverty and mental health, and that their children are often those with poor attendance records.

“The families of children who miss school often need intensive help that teachers sometimes just can’t give because they are in the classroom. This is one of the reasons why we decided we wanted a School Home Support worker,” she says.

Ofsted inspectors said that Soyler’s school’s attendance figures left room for improvement when they visited in May last year. Since taking on Shelley, the school’s attendance record is back up to 95% – about the national average.

Alison Lines, a School Home Support worker in Barking and Dagenham, in east London, says that schools understand far better than ministers why a tough stance on truancy often will not work.

“Most of the mums I see whose children are persistent absentees are struggling with domestic violence, disability problems or debt,” she says. “Fining them would achieve absolutely nothing– in fact, it would probably disengage them further from their child’s education and schools know this. In most cases, these mums are not thinking about the impact absence from school is going to have on their child because their mind is so full of worries about their family being evicted from their homes. Most of them aren’t sleeping.”

Alison holds a coffee morning every fortnight to encourage parents, including those whose children have or have had an absence problem, to come and talk to her. Today’s is taking place at Godwin primary in Dagenham and is a jewellery-making workshop. In the home economics room, 10 mothers sit on stools threading shiny beads on to pipe cleaners.

A year ago, Louise was so worried about her debt problems, she let everything else go and her then nine-year-old son’s attendance at school dropped to three or four days a week. Alison spotted this and contacted her. The pair discussed the debt and went out to buy a vacuum to clear up the house.

“To lose my arm would be terrible, but to lose Alison would be devastating,” Louise says when I ask the difference Alison has made. Her son’s attendance at school is creeping back up to 100% now.

Jane, a mother of three who is disabled, says: “Us mums just cheer each other up at these coffee mornings. If I see one of the  mums is down, I will have a bit of banter with her. Alison has brought us together.”

Alison often asks the group for help. One mum’s punctuality record for dropping her children at school has become very poor and Alison recently bought her an alarm clock. “I gave it to her, but she can’t tell the time so I’m going to try to think of something else,” she says.

All in all, Alison’s success rate is high. Between September and December last year, in the schools she worked in, Alison managed to reduce the amount of time pupils were missing from school from 37% to 27%.

Across the country, School Home Support workers are funded by schools, local authorities and big businesses. Until recently, the investment bank Goldman Sachs covered 70% of the costs of them in Newham. Last year, School Home Support workers helped more than 4,000 families and reduced the time children missed in school from 32% to 22%.

“I think we work because we are a cross between a friend, a social worker and a teacher,” says Alison. “I could have a clone and an assistant and still fill every minute of my day.”

Some names have been changed.

400,000 Pupils Miss Month Of School

400,000 Pupils Miss Month Of School

BBC |March 28, 2012

By Angela Harrison BBC News correspondent

Nick Gibb, Schools Minister: “Missing a month of school is a significant amount”

Figures show 400,000 children were persistently absent from England’s schools in the past year and missed about one month of school each.

The government statistics show a small rise in the number of pupils skipping school without permission, but a drop in overall absence rates.

Overall absence rates, which include sickness, fell from 6% to 5.8%.

About 62,000 youngsters missed sessions without permission on a typical day in the last academic year.

There was a small rise – 0.1 of a percentage point – in the truancy rate – which measures absences where no permission has been given and children are not sick.

This now stands at 1.1% – a level which has stayed roughly the same in recent years.

There was a small increase in the numbers of children missing school for family holidays.

This accounted for 9.5% of all absence – compared with 9.3% the previous year.

The figures show that authorised absence fell to 4.7% in 2010-11, from 5% the year before.

Illness remains the main reason for children missing school, accounting for 58.7% of time missed.

Ministers are trying to crack down on pupils missing school, saying they are losing valuable time from their education.

Fines for parents

Schools Minister Nick Gibb welcomed the downward trend in absence but said he was very concerned about children who persistently missed school.

“A hard core of almost 400,000 pupils still missed at least a month of school. We should not underestimate the impact of this on their future prospects,” he said.

“The effect that poor attendance at school can have on a child’s education can be permanent and damaging. Children who attend school regularly are four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, than those who are persistently absent.”

Data also released by the government shows that more parents are being fined because their children are failing to attend school.

In total, 32,641 penalty notices were issued in 2010-11, up from 25,657 the year before. Of these, 7,902 went unpaid.

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