If they are not given a satisfactory answer, they are asked to pass on descriptions, names and addresses to Staffordshire County Council's education welfare service or to the police. About 30 were reported in the first six weeks. The project was praised last month by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, when he called for a network of 'truancy-watch' schemes.
Staffordshire's truancy rate was slightly below average in national league tables published in November, but the council, the chamber of trade and the police were keen to cut the number of children in the shopping centre on school days. Parents have been sent leaflets reminding them of their legal duty to send their children to school, listing the tell-tale signs of truancy, and offering ways of dealing with it. A truancy officer has been appointed to work with children in schools, and an education welfare officer and a police schools liaison officer regularly tour the shopping centre on the lookout for truants.
Nigel Ross, the welfare officer, emphasises that no one is being asked to take children by the ear and drag them back to school. 'We are not the old School Board Man. We have a good relationship with offenders. There's one who has cropped up a lot, and he will leave quite amicably with me because I get on well with him,' he says.
Soon after the scheme started, groups of unaccompanied children seen in Hanley on school days melted away, says Mr Ross. Now he and police officer Nigel Jackson are watching for children out shopping with their parents when they should be at school.
Last week there were more than enough to keep them busy. Of the dozen or so families they approached, just one had the genuine excuse that the school was closed because its boiler had broken down. One mother explained cheerfully that her children were having the day off to go shopping, and appeared shocked when she was told she was committing an offence. The rest all said their child was ill, and were told that if this was the case, he or she should be in bed rather than at the shops. Mr Ross takes the names and addresses of everyone he talks to on these rounds, and passes them on to the welfare officer for the area where the children live. Some of them will be found to be good attenders at school, and no further action will be taken. Others will already be known to the social services.
Other schemes, including one in Birmingham with a police 'wag van' picking up truants, have been criticised because they do not provide sufficient back-up. The Stoke scheme's advantage, say its supporters, is that it promotes the feeling that the community cares what happens to its children. Vincent McDonnell, the principal education officer, says: 'The whole message is that we are not trying to apportion blame. We are trying to say that we are a community and that within Staffordshire we should be caring for our own.'
Most shopkeepers are pleased with the results, though some feel the scheme has not eradicated the problem. Martin Carr, manager of the HMV shop in the shopping centre, says that when he approaches children and asks them why they are not at school, the reply is usually: 'It's none of your business'.
'I do think it's a great idea, but I would question how effective it really is, and I would be interested to know how many schools are making a big thing of it. Everybody has to be involved, but the impetus has to come from schools and parents.'
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