Education Quandary

'Why is it only mothers who are fined or imprisoned for failing to send their children to school? Surely both parents have a duty to see that their child gets an education. Shouldn't fathers be held equally responsible?'
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The Independent Online

The law doesn't care whether it is a mother or father who takes the rap for persistent truanting. It is the parent in charge of day-to-day care who is deemed responsible. Alas, the harsh reality is that this is almost always the mother. Two of the three parents jailed so far under the harsh new anti-truancy measures have been single mothers. However, this query comes from Suffolk, where a pregnant mother spent Christmas in jail after being given a 28-day sentence for repeatedly failing to get her 11-year-old daughter to school, while the girl's father was fined £180. On the face of it this seems grossly unfair. But the court ruled that since the mother had been hiding the girl's truancy from the father, he did not know the full situation and could not therefore be held as

HILARY'S ADVICE

The law doesn't care whether it is a mother or father who takes the rap for persistent truanting. It is the parent in charge of day-to-day care who is deemed responsible. Alas, the harsh reality is that this is almost always the mother. Two of the three parents jailed so far under the harsh new anti-truancy measures have been single mothers. However, this query comes from Suffolk, where a pregnant mother spent Christmas in jail after being given a 28-day sentence for repeatedly failing to get her 11-year-old daughter to school, while the girl's father was fined £180. On the face of it this seems grossly unfair. But the court ruled that since the mother had been hiding the girl's truancy from the father, he did not know the full situation and could not therefore be held as accountable.

This raises fundamental questions about family relationships and the duties of all parents towards their children. Lots of us might tut-tut over the chaotic few who end up in the dock, but how many of us – and perhaps especially fathers– can put our hands on our hearts and say we are bringing up our school-age children as well as we could? Every day, schools have to waste hours struggling with pupils who are angry, argumentative, disorganised, anxious, hyped up, turned off, or just plain unhappy because what goes on – or doesn't – at home. Standards in education would be quite simply revolutionised if more parents worked harder to support and nurture their children's learning.

But that doesn't mean anything elaborate. A study of 12,000 American high school students found that teenagers who feel emotionally connected to one parent are up to a third less likely to fall into problems than those who don't. Emotional connection, the researchers said, means simply being there for them at key times such as early mornings and suppertime, and staying involved in their lives. Truancy is a massive problem and hands-off parents must shoulder their part of the blame. But it's debatable whether fines and imprisonment are the best way to make them. Compulsory parenting orders, which require the parents of delinquent children to take training or counselling, show signs of being a more constructive way forward, although some say parents only turn up for classes because of the threat of what will happen if they don't.

READERS' ADVICE

It beggars belief that a civilised country can contemplate putting either a mother or a father in prison because their children don't attend school. What does it say about our educational system if school attendance is the only kind of involuntary servitude left in Britain? A 1993 DES report by Dennis O'Keeffe, "Truancy in English Secondary Schools", found that most truancy was post-registration; since this is not reflected in schools' statistics, the true rate of truancy is far higher than official figures allow. Prof O'Keeffe also asked pupils why they truanted, and found that by far and away the most common reason was to escape a class they hated. If we are not prepared to ask why they hate these classes, we have no business throwing either parent in prison.

Tom Burkard, Secretary, The Promethean Trust (for dyslexic children), Norwich

It's wrong to assume parents know that their children are truanting. My son used to bunk off with his friends after morning break, then come home on the school bus. The first I heard about it was when I was called into school to discuss his work. How can you punish someone – mother or father – for something they know nothing about?

Gemma Sale, Leeds

From working in a prison, I know how many men walk out on their children and have nothing to do with them. They sometimes feel guilty, but they believe it's a woman's job to bring up kids, not a man's. I don't believe society will ever change until men get more involved, but most of these men haven't known their own fathers, so how can they know anything different?

Jerry Longcroft, Hampshire

NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY

'My daughter says that doing French at school is a waste of time because everyone speaks English now and she won't ever need another language. She doesn't put any effort into it, and I know she will drop it as soon as she can. I feel that being able to speak a foreign language is an essential part of a good education and will improve her job prospects, but what can I say to persuade her?'

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 16 December, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.

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