Fine the feckless?

There are reports in the media that Michael Gove wants to deduct fines imposed on parents of those pupils not attending school from child benefits. This policy was suggested earlier in the coalition by a Conservative adviser, but blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Presumably, this revival of the idea could be designed to prevent UKIP announcing it as a policy ahead of the Conservatives.

As a headline it no doubt resonates with groups that feel you shouldn’t get something for nothing, and part of the contract in receiving state benefits is that you play your part; in this case ensuring your offspring go to school regularly. From the opposite perspective it looks like punishing the child by reducing family income, often already low in real terms, because of the actions of the parents. The sins of the fathers or in this case possibly even the mothers, being transferred to the next generation.

None of this is to underestimate the problem of children missing education, and the part parents play in conniving in their absence from school, but to seek to discover how best to deal with the issue.

I have never liked the idea of schools being able to fine parents. Recent governments have taken the idea that fines can be administered by public bodies without recourse to the judicial system to absurd lengths. This means that, unlike in court, those imposing the fines have neither the whole picture nor the means to compel someone to attend to discuss their means. As a result, fines are a very blunt instrument, and this often resorts in them eventually being written off unpaid. If fines are the solution they need to be imposed by a court with oversight of all State imposed penalties: as a form of punishment a community sentence to some form of parenting programme might well be a better alternative, especially if imposed early in a child’s record of unapproved absence. Personally, I think returning Magistrates’ Courts to local areas so that they can act quickly and decisively with the ability to understand the whole picture might be better than allowing head teachers to cut child benefit.

On the other hand, schools do need to consider how, especially in the early years, they can tackle those children that fall behind in their learning through absence. I am sure that the best schools do this as a matter of course, but some research into outcomes at the 20 or some primary schools with the worst attendance records might pay some interesting dividends. It would be an easy win to ask these schools that the DfE has already identified whether they are using their Pupil Premium to help these children?

Where the welfare of the child is in danger a local authority has the extreme option of directly intervening in the parenting of a child. Perhaps the Secretary of State should start by asking his colleagues in the Children’s Services part of his Department what they would recommend before targeting benefit cuts as the headline solution. Liberal Democrats were correct to block this policy last time it was mooted, and although they cannot stop Mr Gove campaigning to put it in the Tory manifesto for 2015, I hope that they will make clear their opposition to it by a definitive statement to that effect from their education minister, David Laws.

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