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Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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How many initiatives the DFES and its predecessor Department have announced since 1997 to tackle truancy. [108245]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Since 1997 we have been working to support local education authorities with a range of measures to tackle truancy and improve school attendance. In the last year we have introduced electronic registration systems into more schools, we have co-ordinated national truancy sweeps, and we have funded behaviour improvement programmes in areas with high levels of truancy. Over the next three years, we will implement our national behaviour and attendance strategy to support schools in improving behaviour and attendance and tackling truancy.

What I actually asked was how many schemes the Government had announced. Perhaps the Minister was not there on the day when the answer was given to him, but the truth about the latest Government scheme, involving bringing parents before a magistrate, is that only four out of 10 parents turned up. The local council's principal officer for inclusion said

"It's obviously been a failure… The scheme clearly needs rethinking."
Would the Minister care to comment on that?

I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that truancy is a problem that we need to tackle, and an issue on which there ought to be national consensus. Every day 50,000 children truant, and 7.5 million school days are lost every year. Truancy leads directly to educational underperformance and street crime. What the Government are doing, for the first time, is establishing a combination of positive support and early intervention to prevent truancy and nip it in the bud when it begins. We are also ensuring that sanctions and other consequences result when parents do not fulfil their responsibility to get their children to school.

More adults than ever before are supporting teachers. We are reforming the educational welfare service. We have nationally co-ordinated truancy sweeps. We are reforming the curriculum—and yes, we are holding parents to account for the first time when they actively condone truancy. We believe that there must be a combination of support, prevention and accountability.

My hon. Friend will be aware that truancy is often related to social difficulties in areas of deprivation, and to family breakdown and the like. This puts enormous pressure on the head teachers of very large schools in such areas, in which there is a high proportion of people with social difficulties. Will my hon. Friend consider recommending the appointment of, and the provision of the necessary resources to support, specialist social workers in such schools to take that pressure off of head teachers and teachers?

There have never been more adults in our schools supporting teachers in their front-line classroom duties. Classroom assistants, learning mentors and Connexions personal advisers are there to make links to provide intensive support to individual young people, particularly those who are the most challenging within the school community. They also make links between what is happening in school and what is happening at home, and central to that is the role of Connexions, which addresses any barrier that is preventing young people from progressing within the education system, be it the curriculum, the relationship with the school, the situation at home, or the relationship with peers. There have never been more adults working as part of the school work force to focus on the needs of all children, but especially of those who are the most challenging to the education system.

Will the Minister acknowledge that court action, fixed-penalty notices, parental contracts and the like are not a great deal of help with the permanent truants, who are completely out of the control of their own parents? What estimate has he made of this hard-core group, and what specific initiatives does he have for them?

Such observations are fairly typical of the Liberal Democrats, based as they are on the principle of all rights and no responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman will recall the recent high-profile case of Mrs. Amos, who was sent to prison as a last resort because she had consistently failed to send her children to school. However, she is now the greatest advocate of our policy. She says quite openly that she sends her children to school regularly, and her family are receiving intensive levels of support. There is no doubt that, as a last resort, fines and imprisonment lead to the triggering of action that is so important in terms of finally dealing with the underlying problems that result in such children not attending school.