Fining parents has not cut truancy rates, say Lib Dems

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The Government's policy of fining and prosecuting the parents of persistent truants has failed to reduce the number of pupils skipping lessons, research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.

More than 35,000 parents have been fined and nearly 8,000 prosecuted in the past three years, but truancy has increased by the equivalent of more than 2 million school days in the same period.

The number of children in England playing truant has risen by a third since Labour came to power – despite more than £1bn being spent on tackling the problem. Last year 1 per cent of all lessons were missed through unauthorised absence, although this includes pupils who were late. This compares to 0.92 per cent in 2006 and 0.73 per cent in 1997.

Under laws introduced in 2004, parents who allow their children to miss school face on-the-spot fines of £50 and fast-track prosecutions that could see them jailed for up to three months.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat children's spokesman who received the figures in answer to a parliamentary question, said: "The Government's strategy to tackle truancy is failing. Despite prosecuting more parents, the truancy rate in our schools is continuing to rise.

"Parents need to take responsibility for their children's behaviour and they have an obligation to ensure they attend school. A community-wide approach involving parents, police and local welfare officers would be much more effective than the current measures."

Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, blamed the Government's failure to ensure that all pupils left primary school able to read properly, arguing that youngsters who struggled to cope in lessons were likely to become persistent truants.

About 7 per cent of pupils accounted for a third of all absences in England's secondary schools last year. Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said ministers were wrong to suggest that fines and prosecutions could provide a "magic solution" to the problem.

"There is a hard core of truants for whom fines, court appearances and even prison have no effect," she said. "The only way you can deal with it is to recognise that it's to do with the social-economic situation of the families involved. The threat of sanctions can actually make things worse by making these parents even more embedded in their behaviour."

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, said: "Fines and prosecutions are only used at the end of the line. Children cannot be successful in education unless they attend school. It therefore remains a priority for schools to reduce truancy. But they will always try to do this by persuasion rather than resort to prosecution."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families argued that the truancy rate had gone up because schools were taking a tougher stance on weak excuses for absence which they may once have authorised. Overall absence, which includes children off sick with permission, hit a record low last year.

"On average, 58,000 more pupils were in school each day in 2007 than would have been the case if absence rates were still at the level of a decade ago," she said.