Leading Article: Gimmicks apart, Mr Blunkett's plan to cut school truancy is sound

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The Independent Culture
THE PROBLEMS of education lie at the very heart of the problems of British society. If Labour tackles those problems with any degree of success, then that alone will guarantee this Government an honoured place in the history books.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, was right yesterday to emphasise the key challenge of keeping children at school. Better education helps to ensure better jobs for the recipients of that education; it acts as the glue, too, of a stable society.

Admittedly, some of his suggestions for dealing with truancy levels make little sense. Tougher fines for parents of truanting children are a distraction from the real issue. If the parents do not react to the threat of a pounds 1,000 fine, they will not jump to attention in response to the threat of a heavier one. Truancy goes hand in hand with poverty and social exclusion. To imagine that arresting parents will help to solve the problem is to indulge in self-deception on a grand scale. Tolerated truancy is depressing; but attempting to fight it with a legal battering-ram leads into a social and political cul-de-sac.

Children who refuse to be educated often pose a much greater problem than the parents can handle. In that sense, providing help for beleaguered parents is more important than deploying additional legal weapons against them.

Thankfully, Mr Blunkett is also deploying less crazy notions. Above all, his emphasis on the poverty of expectation and aspiration is important. The statistics show that the knock-on benefits of a good education cannot be overestimated - not just for the individual, or for the exam statistics, but for society itself. The current figures speak for themselves. Among children whose parents have degrees, two-thirds go on to attend university; among the children of unskilled workers, the figure is just one in 25. That gap in opportunities is crying out to be closed.

In order to help close the gap, an attack on socially destructive absence from school is to be welcomed, however absurd the talk of heavy fines may be. Thus the idea of a mentor - a cross between a guardian and a guard - for children who are liable to play truant is certainly worthwhile. The discount smart cards for teenagers who stay in education after the age of 16 may be dismissed as gimmickry, but at least they emphasise the idea of providing incentive. The individual learning accounts - persuading children to stay at school by offering them money in the bank - are likely to be fraught with practical difficulty. But they, too, suggest that the importance of education for all - instead of an upstairs-and-downstairs mentality - is publicly recognised.

The drift is clear. A mixture of carrot and stick can help to keep more children in education. As Mr Blunkett made clear, improvements are not just a question of hard cash. Under previous administrations, Tory and Labour alike, it was assumed that the big problems could never be solved. The Conservatives pretended the problems did not exist, or sought to shovel off the blame on to others; Labour hoped that more money would solve all the problems of the world.

That has now changed. There is a new confidence that may prove to be infectious. If even partial improvement in our schools can be achieved, the benefits for the economy and for society as a whole will be enormous.