Parents have a lesson to learn on truancy

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The Independent Online

It's 11am on a sunny Friday morning and children are out in force at Islington's Chapel Market, helping the traders set up their stalls. Adults drift by accompanied by their offspring, on their way to the north London borough's new shopping centre.

It's 11am on a sunny Friday morning and children are out in force at Islington's Chapel Market, helping the traders set up their stalls. Adults drift by accompanied by their offspring, on their way to the north London borough's new shopping centre.

You might imagine it must be the start of the school holidays – not the middle of the national test and exam season.

Despite Government entreaties – and the jailing of an Oxfordshire mother – parents are still allowing their children to miss school to go shopping.

But this summer, police and council officials will take to the streets as part of a new £66m Government-funded drive to stop children skipping school.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, has admitted the Government has failed to make inroads into the 50,000 schoolchildren who play truant each day.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has raised the stakes by threatening to withdraw benefits from parents who cannot ensure their children attend school.

Opponents condemned the suggestion as unfair, arguing that many parents could not control their offspring's school attendance.

But a major truancy sweep by Islington police and council officers which finished yesterday found the vast majority of children stopped in shopping centres during school hours were accompanied by their parents. More than 120 children were stopped during the fortnight. Yesterday alone 36 were caught. Almost 90 per cent were with a parent. Only five of yesterday's truants were out on their own.

The reaction of one mother stopped yesterday after visiting Islington's new shopping centre with her two daughters, aged 11 and nine, illustrates the problems the Government still has to overcome. "Oh they're not truanting. They're with me. I'm their mum," she said, smiling.

Unflustered by the questions of the truancy team, she says one girl has a dentist's appointment while the other "hasn't felt very well recently".

Sadly, this is still a common attitude among parents, said Richard Saffron, one of the borough's education welfare officers. "Too many parents believe that truants are children who miss school and no one knows where they are. They do not appreciate that just because the child is with a parent does not mean it is not truancy."

Virtually all parents claimed their child was ill or had just been to the dentist. Islington officials hope to drive home the message that if a child is well enough to go shopping, they are well enough to be at school.

However tempers are running high among local parents over the jailing of Patricia Amos, the mother of five currently serving a 60-day sentence in Holloway Prison because of her daughters' persistent truancy.

One mother-of-three stopped by the team – who correctly guessed the five-year-old on the back of her baby buggy should be at school – could hardly contain her fury. "The Government is so delighted that this woman is locked up because of the message they think it is sending. It makes me so angry. I know my son should be at school but he hasn't been well and sometimes it just seems easier to keep them off."

Despite its reputation as home of the chattering classes, much of Islington is made up of housing estates and that very real deprivation sits alongside the privilege. The only thing that unites them, on yesterday's evidence, is a willingness to sanction their children's absenteeism.

The council admits it has received complaints from parents angry at being questioned by the police for being on the streets with their children during school hours.

But parents stopped yesterday who could provide valid reasons for their children being out of school supported the truancy drive.

Margaret Sanderson was shopping with her eight-year-old grandson, Cameron, who had been off school all week after being injured in a playground accident. She said: "I don't mind being stopped. There are far too many children out there roaming the street." But other parents refused point-blank to return their children to school. A father accompanied by his three teenage children stopped at 11am said the family had just been for dental check-ups. He refused the team's request for the children to return to school, accepting their argument in principle but adding "sometimes it's just not worth it".

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