Prosecuting Parents for Truancy: Who pays the price?

Project Details


This is a study of parents, and in particular, mothers, who are fined or threatened with fines for their child’s non-attendance at school. Many of the children and young people who do not attend school regularly have moderate or severe mental health problems. There are parents, often of children on the autism spectrum or with anxiety disorders, who, try as they might, simply cannot get their children in to school. They are particularly vulnerable families. Many have received repeated fines and threats of prison.
In England and Wales, the offence of truancy is deemed to have been committed by parents of school age children who have not attended school regularly, missing 10% of school sessions. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 sets out a parental duty to secure the efficient education of children by ensuring the child’s regular attendance at school or otherwise. Under Subsection 444 (1) the offence is strict liability, which means that the prosecution does not have to prove intent to commit the crime or even that the parent was aware that the child was missing school. Under Subsection 444 (1A) there is a further offence if the parent knew about the child’s absence and failed to act. The punishment can be a fine up to £2,500 or a term of imprisonment.
In 2017 in England and Wales 16,406 people were prosecuted for truancy, of whom 11, 739 (71%) were women. 12, 698 were convicted, of whom 9,413 (74%) were women. 110 people were given a suspended sentence of imprisonment, 88 (80%) were women. 500 were given a community order – 416 (83%) were women. Ten people were sent to prison, 9 were women. It is clear that women are disproportionately pursued for this offence.
Our research set out to get first-hand testimony from parents who have experience of the system. We constructed a questionnaire asking parents whose children have missed school about their child’s health, whether they had special educational needs or a disability (SEND), whether their child had been bullied, what were the circumstances of the parents and other family members, and whether or not they had been prosecuted or threatened with prosecution. A link to the online anonymous survey was placed on a number of sites where parents discuss child-care issues, such as Mumsnet.
126 parents completed the questionnaire giving information on 132 children. About 40% of the children were reported as on the autism spectrum. Many of them had other health issues. 90% of the children had SEND or a health problem, and almost all were very anxious. Some 60% of the children had been bullied in school, mostly by other children and some by school staff. The parents described their children as suffering night terrors and having extreme fear reactions when it was time for school. All had tried, without success, to get their children to go to school regularly.
Despite their best efforts many of these parents faced threats of prosecution or had fines imposed. Many were on benefits or low incomes and found it hard to pay fines. We conclude that non-attendance at school should be treated as child welfare, and not a criminal justice, issue.
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