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PROSECUTING PARENTS TO TACKLE SCHOOL NON-ATTENDANCE

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Data received from 93 LEAs showed that, in these authorities, in one academic year a total of 5,381 parents were su...
Data received from 93 LEAs showed that, in these authorities, in one academic year a total of 5,381 parents were summonsed to court because their child failed to attend school regularly. This is just one initial finding from new research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) which involves an in-depth study examining the effects and effectiveness of prosecuting parents as a strategy to combat non-school attendance.

The research, the first stage of a three phase study, has been conducted on behalf of the Local Government Association as part of their Educational Research Programme. It provides an overview of the prosecution process within LEAs from interviews with 122 Principal Education Welfare Officers (PEWOs) or equivalent, and data on prosecutions provided by nearly 100 Local Education Authorities (LEAs) between September 2001 and July 2002.

Debates about school non-attendance, and how to tackle it effectively, have been ongoing issues of both public and government concern for many years. The 1996 Education Act states that 'if a child of compulsory school age, who is a registered pupil at a school, fails to attend regularly at that school, his parent is guilty of an offence.' Parents may be fined and now, with the introduction of an 'aggravated offence' for parents who 'knowingly' do not send their children to school, could also receive a custodial sentence.

Graham Lane, chair of the LGA's education and lifelong learning executive, said: 'Just as every child has a right to receive good quality education, every parent has a duty to ensure their child attends school on a regular basis.

'LEAs have an important role to play in tackling non-attendance. Of course, the best solution is for problems to be identified at an early stage and resolved with minimum disruption to the child and the school.

'The LGA has been working with partners to encourage strategies to prevent

non-attendance and alternatives to enforcement, for example, agencies working together through family group conferences.

'However, in cases where parents know that their child is not attending school, this is a serious offence and, in the final outcome, should be treated as such by the courts. The evidence is that bringing parents to court is often seen as more effective than the actual court outcome but parents who allow their children to take time off school are showing contempt for their future opportunities and I hope that local government can work with central government to combat it.'

Some key findings:

Prosecution data

- Data collected showed that prosecutions were most likely to be taken against parents of Year 10 pupils. However, interviewees often felt that intervention with younger children was more effective.

- Across the LEAs, the number of prosecutions per 1000 pupils ranged from nil to 7.4, with the average number of prosecutions being 1.1 per 1000 pupils. Analysis also showed that prosecutions were higher in LEAs which had a greater number of EWOs per school population.

- Three-quarters of all prosecutions were brought against mothers. In 4 out of 5 cases the prosecution resulted in the parent being found guilty. About 1 in 7 cases were withdrawn and less than 1 per cent were found not guilty.

Outcomes arising from prosecution

- Fines were the most common outcome, being used in around two-thirds of all cases. The most common level of fine was between £50 and £100, accounting for half of all the recorded fines imposed.

- Low fines were often criticised by Education Welfare Service Managers, as they were perceived to symbolise the lack of importance given to non-attendance and consequent prosecution. However, there was also a general acceptance of the reasons underlying such levels and parents' inability to afford higher fines. Comments on the inconsistency in outcomes were often evident.

Perspectives on the principle and effectiveness of pr osecution

- Ninety per cent (110 out of 122) of the Education Welfare Service Managers interviewed agreed with the general principle of prosecution and seventy per cent of interviewees (86 out of 122) felt that, at times, prosecution could be an effective strategy to combat non-attendance.

- The most common justification for prosecution given by Education Welfare Service interviewees was the compulsory nature of education. Prosecution was said to be upholding the legal responsibility that parents had to educate their children, being a sanction for breaking the law, and protecting children's rights to receive an appropriate education.

- The process of bringing parents to court was often viewed by interviewees as more effective than the actual court outcome.

Overall, the key findings to date and areas for further discussion revolved around the variability both in practice and viewpoints that were identified in the research.

- Variability emerged in opinion about the viability and appropriateness of different disposals, about uses of the aggravated offence, as well as variability in the decision-making process, who is responsible for presenting cases in court and the role of elected members.

NFER principal research officer Kay Kinder said: 'It is hoped this first overview of prosecutions can provide the basis for useful debate and exchange of views within and between each of the services connected to the prosecution process. The next phases of the research will hopefully contribute to this debate further. We will be relaying the views of representatives from other services (including clerks to the court and magistrates) and also those of parents who have been involved in the prosecution process.'

The full report School Attendance and the Prosecution of Parents: Perspectives from Education Welfare Service Management-First Report by Sally Kendall, Richard White and Kay Kinder is available priced £9 from The Publications Unit, The Library, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, SL1 2DQ. Tel: 01753 747281 or

e-mail: book.sales@nfer.ac.uk.

Notes

1. Phase two of the research will focus on visits to 12 LEAs to speak to Education Welfare Service staff and others involved in prosecutions to provide a more detailed analysis of the prosecution process and to obtain operational and strategic insights. Phase three involves interviews with families who have been prosecuted, in order to gain their insights into the process and its impact. Findings from these phases are expected to be available in a final report at the end of 2003.

2. The NFER/LGA are hosting a seminar for councillors and officers on 11 July 2003 with senior researchers from the NFER who will be giving a presentation on the first report of the study: School Attendance and the Prosecution of Parents: Perspectives from Education Welfare Service Management ??? First Report at the LGA Conference Centre.

TITLE: School Attendance and the Prosecution of Parents: Perspectives from Education Welfare Service Management-First Report

AUTHORS: Sally Kendall, Richard White and Kay Kinder

SPONSOR: Local Government Association

Background

This report relays the findings from the initial phase of a study focusing on non-attendance at school and the prosecution of parents. The study is divided into three phases. Phase one provides an overview of the prosecution process within LEAs via telephone interviews with Principal Education Welfare Officers (PEWOs) or equivalent, and the completion of a proforma in order to gather quantitative data on prosecutions within LEAs. Phase two focuses on visits to 12 LEAs to speak to Education Welfare Service staff and others involved in prosecutions to provide a more detailed analysis of the prosecution process and to obtain operational and strategic insights. Phase three involves interviews with families who have been prosecuted, in order to gain their insights into the process and its impact.

Th is report, in presenting findings from phase one of the study, focuses on quantitative data on prosecutions provided by officers from 97 LEAs and qualitative data from interviews with 122 PEWO-level professionals in 119 LEAs.

Quantitative data on prosecutions

- Proforma returns showed that across 97 LEAs the total recorded number of pupils involved in prosecutions between September 2001 and July 2002 was 5045, and that prosecutions were most likely to be taken against parents of year 10 pupils.

- The number of prosecutions per 1000 pupils ranged from nil to 7.4: the average number of prosecutions was 1.1 per 1000 pupils.

- Three-quarters of prosecutions were brought against female parents, whilst only a quarter were brought against male parents. Over four-fifths of prosecutions resulted in a guilty verdict.

- Fines were the most common disposal given, accounting for nearly two-thirds of all disposals. The most common level of fine was between £50 and £100, accounting for half of all the recorded fines imposed.

Backgrounds and contexts of prosecutions

- Socio-economic, geographic and demographic factors were identified as significant elements in understanding levels of prosecution. External influences ??? political and policy factors, as well as factors relating to the structure, organisation and orientation of the EWS/ESW service were deemed to impact on the level of prosecutions.

Nature of offences sought

- The majority of interviewees said they brought prosecutions under section 444.1 of the 1996 Education Act, although many did (or were intending to) prosecute parents under section 444.1a. (444.1a is the aggravated offence, which carries stiffer penalties with the possibility of a maximum fine of £2,500 per parent per offence, or up to three months imprisonment). Only two respondents commented that they would not use section 444.1a.

- Many intervie wees noted that considerable work had yet to be done on developing protocols and training for the successful and effective use of section 444.1a.

- The decision underlying the nature of the offence sought was largely dependent on individual circumstances, although the higher offence was often automatically employed for repeat prosecutions and in cases of extreme non-cooperation from parents.

- The advantages of section 444.1a stemmed from the compulsion for parents to attend court, so it was seen as reflecting the seriousness of the offence. Concerns were raised regarding the philosophy of possibly imprisoning a parent, as well as the technical/legislative and training implications, such as the use of formal cautioning of parents.

Disposals arising from prosecution

- Low fines were generally criticised by EWS managers, as they were perceived to symbolise the lack of importance given to the prosecution. There was also a general acceptance of the reasons underlying such levels and parents' inability to afford higher fines. Perceived inconsistencies in the level of fines imposed were also questioned.

- Interviewees were largely supportive of a conditional discharge's ability to effect positive change in attendance without inflicting hardship on parents and families. However, a few were critical of conditional discharge in terms of it being an indecisive conclusion to a prosecution or one that might lead parents to think they had 'got away with it'.

Perspectives on the principle and effectiveness of prosecution

- Ninety per cent of interviewees (110 out of 122) agreed with the general principle of prosecution and seventy per cent of interviewees (86 out of 122) felt that, at times, prosecution could be an effective strategy. The most common justification for prosecution given by interviewees was the compulsory nature of education.

- Key factors that were felt to contribute towards the effectivenes s of prosecution, e.g. the timing of prosecution and the disposals given, were also identified by interviewees as factors that might mitigate against effectiveness.

- The process of bringing parents to court was often viewed by interviewees as more effective than the actual outcome.

- There was recognition amongst interviewees of the need to monitor the effectiveness of prosecutions within their own LEAs. Where such monitoring systems were not yet established, interviewees identified this as an area for development.

Concluding comments

- Overall, the key findings to date and areas for further discussion must surely revolve around the variability both in practice and viewpoints that the research has revealed.

- It is clear that the vast majority of interviewees were supportive of the general principle of prosecution; a few adamantly were not. Considerably less (though more than two-thirds) also felt that it could be an effective strategy, and this perhaps intimates that some discrepancy between principle and current practice exists in the minds of senior EWS staff. Perceived inconsistency in disposals and resource issues were particular factors highlighted as adversely impinging on perceived effectiveness, sometimes compounded by a lack of 'hard' evidence on outcomes.

- Variability emerged in opinion about the viability and appropriateness of different disposals, about uses of the aggravated offence (Section 444.1a), as well as variability in the decision-making process, who is responsible for presenting cases in court and the role of elected members. Similarly, from the survey data, variability within LEAs emerged: different degrees of prosecutions per pupil population were evident. In addition, variability within prosecution cases was evident: it was female parents that accounted for three-quarters of the parents prosecuted.

- This overview of variability and variety perhaps can provide the basis for u seful debate and exchange of views within and between each of the services connected to the prosecution process.

The report was published by NFER as part of the Local Government Association Research Series in July 2003 (LGA Research Report 43: ISBN 1 903880 51 3: price £9.00 inc p&p).

Copies can be obtained from The Library, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, SL1 2DQ. Tel: 01753 747281 or e-mail: book.sales@nfer.ac.uk.

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