Government advisor says truancy crackdown means three-year-olds should have school absence recorded


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The Independent Online

Children as young as  three and four should have their absences from school recorded if the government’s crackdown on truancy is to be effective, its most senior adviser on behaviour said today.

Charlie Taylor, the Government’s behaviour “tsar” warned that it was often “too late” to solve attendance problems if they were not tackled until a child started formal schooling.

“There is no nationally collected data on children’s attendance in nursery and reception, as school is not mandatory at this age,” he said in a report published today.

“This means schools are not held to account for pupils’ attendance until they reach the age of five  ... but for some children this is already too late.”

He added: “Children with low attendance in the early years are more likely to come from the poorest backgrounds.

“These children are likely to start school already behind their peers, particularly in the acquisition of language and their social development.”

“They have little chance of catching up their peers if their attendance is bad.  If they fail to succeed early in their school careers they are likely to get further behind.”

The unprecedented move would mean schools keeping absence records of children under the age of compulsory schooling for the first time ever.

 The call won the backing  of  Education Secretary Michael Gove who said: “It is clear that poor habits form in the early stages of a child’s education.

“Primary schools need to do more to support parents who are not getting their children into school, starting in reception classes.

“A full range of school absence data plays a key role in helping teachers to pick up and deal with poor attendance patterns.  We will publish this data.”

The most controversial aspect of the report, though, was the recommendations that parents should lose child benefits if they failed to pay fines for truancy.

Mr Taylor, who was previously the headteacher of a special school for children with behavioural difficulties, suggested increasing on-the-spot fines levied by headteachers from £50 and £60 - with the proviso they should be doubled and deducted from child benefits if not paid within 28 days.

He cited as evidence the fact that – at present – the fact that between 50 and 60 per cent of these fines currently went unpaid.

Teachers’ leaders and child care organisation warned this would penalise children as much as the parents  as the majority who do not pay their fines comes from the most deprived communities.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “We’ve never been convinced that fines are the right approach.

“Effectively you’re fining the child and their brothers and sisters not the real offender.

“Better to work withe the families to overcome the reasons.”

The blueprint also decided against making it illegal for parents to take children out on holidays during term time – arguing that such leave should only be granted by headteachers in exceptional circumstances.

At present, children can be taken out of school for up to 10 days a year – but some parents use this as an entitlement rather than a discretion.

Launching his report, Mr  Taylor warned that some parents were “trigger happy” in  keeping their children off school.

“Sometimes parents think they’re being a good parent by keeping their child off school but actually sometimes they can be a bit trigger happy, particularly with young parents and young children,” he said.

“I think it’s just an education job.  It’s helping parents to understand what’s the difference between a bit of a sniffle and ‘don’t worry we’ll look after him and if there’s a real problem we’ll give you a ring’ and something that’s really serious and the kid needs to be at home.”