Leading article: A self-defeating sanction for truancy


Docking a family's child benefit if children do not attend school is a bad idea. Which is not to deny that truancy is a problem. Some 54 million days of school were missed last year, up on the year before. Almost half a million pupils miss a month of school a year. This matters, especially in subjects like maths and English, where learning is incremental. Children soon fall behind. Almost three-quarters of those whose attendance rate is 95 per cent achieve five Grade C+ GCSEs, compared with only a third of those with worse attendance records.

Fines might work with those middle-class parents who book family holidays in term-time when they cost less. The numbers doing that are rising. But the time lost is less than 10 per cent of the time lost to more conventional truancy. What has to be recognised is that most truancy is only one symptom of a bigger problem – which may include not eating properly, not doing homework, or not getting up on time in the morning.

All these problems are exacerbated in households dogged by poverty or mental illness. For parents struggling with debt, depression, domestic violence, drugs or alcohol, the present system of fines achieves very little. Indeed, almost half of the 127,000 fines issued since 2004 have gone unpaid. Withholding child benefit is unlikely to improve anything. It will simply mean that these parents have less money for food and bills, which will just create more problems and alienate them further from schools. It will be the children, not the parents, who suffer.

Less dramatic, but more practical, measures are needed. Schools need to analyse attendance data so that children with patterns of absence are identified more quickly. And Ofsted should set tighter attendance requirements for schools. Bad habits set in primary school are harder to break later on. More school-home support workers are also needed to develop the skills of poor parents. Put together, such measures may not produce sensational headlines, but they will stand a better chance of actually working.