Mr Blunkett endorsed Tony Blair's call for a "new moral purpose" for the nation by promising tougher action against parents who refuse to ensure their children attend school. At present 80 per cent of parents refuse to attend court for truancy hearings, an offence that will become an arrestable crime. From next year, the minimum fine of pounds 20, imposed on parents in many cases, will rise to pounds 200. The maximum penalty will increase from pounds 2,000 to pounds 5,000.
Mr Blunkett's aides said the heavy fines would come into effect only on persistent offenders. Under Mr Blair's vision of a society based on "rights and responsibilities", parents with special problems would get help rather than be fined, complementing plans already announced by ministers to provide mentors for disaffected pupils at inner city schools. The Education Secretary told the Labour conference: "Eight million school days are lost each year through truancy or unauthorised absence. A child not in lessons is a child not learning. We all pay the price for that. Some irresponsible parents may not think that education is important. But they cannot deny their children a right to a decent education."
Mr Blunkett said that the typical fine of pounds 20 was an insufficient disincentive to many parents and it failed to reflect the gravity of the offence. Some headteachers in his Sheffield Brightside constituency were forced "to civilise the children before they could teach them", Mr Blunkett said. "So let's get tough with those who get tough with our teachers," he added.
After announcing an extra pounds 130m to provide up to 130,000 more classroom assistants and pounds 170m to improve literacy and numeracy standards, he reiterated the Government's pledge that by the year 2002 no children aged five to seven would be taught in classes of more than 30. Figures to be published soon are expected to show that the number of children in this category has fallen from 477,000 in 1997 to less than 200,000.
A spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, Margaret Morrisey, said that bigger fines would not change the behaviour of a hard-core group of parents, many of whom lived on state benefits, whose children played truant. "We have been down this road before. Fines of pounds 1,000 didn't work and bigger fines won't work either."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The Education Welfare Service tells us they have hundreds of cases that could go to court. But they fear it would make the situation worse."
n Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will announce today a pounds 35m package of measures to tackle "the crisis of youth crime". The Youth Justice Board will oversee schemes such as one that brings criminals face to face with their victims and forces them to pay back what they have stolen.
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