Why docking benefits is not the answer to truancy

Why docking benefits is not the answer to truancy

 

Hodge Hill Girls School. This site on Hodge Hi...

Hodge Hill Girls School. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dock truants’ benefit, ministers urged | BBC. Behaviour tsar Charlie Taylor was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, explaining why, despite his track record of holistic and child-centred behaviour work, he is now recommending docking £120 from child benefit for parents who don’t pay their £60 fine for truancy.

I believe this is wrong.

It is true that children who truant face a bleaker future. Their educational prospects are, of course, blighted. Statistically they are more likely to get involved in an unwanted teenage pregnancy, more likely to leave school with no qualifications, more likely to be long-term unemployed, and more likely to spend time in prison.

I’m not really surprised that Michael Gove looks at those statistics and says “stop truancy at all costs”, though I’m a little more surprised that Charlie Taylor agrees with him.

I grew up in what is now Hodge Hill constituency — it was Stechford then. Hodge Hill has the lowest educational attainment, as measured by GCSEs and A-levels, of any constituency in England. Likewise, it is among the worst for health outcomes, employment, and the other measures of deprivation. Truanting is a problem in Hodge Hill. However, it’s not a problem that is going to be solved by docking money from child benefit.

Charlie Taylor’s report points out that, of the 127,000 penalty notices issued since their introduction in 2004, around half went unpaid or were withdrawn. His response is to increase the fines to £60 from the current £50 and to double them if unpaid after 28 days, with the money automatically deducted from child benefit.

Coincidentally, they were talking on Today about the difficulty of getting very high earners to pay more than the equivalent of 20% income tax. Not many weeks ago we were facing national furore at the notion that child benefit should be stopped for those earning more than £40,000.

In places like Hodge Hill, many people do not make it into the bottom end of tax. Unemployment is high, earnings are low, many families have just one parent struggling to pack the kids off to school and then move quickly on to part-time job at the minimum wage. Child benefit is all that is keeping these families’ heads above water.

Take £120 away from such a family, and you have not created a stimulus for reattending education, you’ve created a cause for despair. It’s all very well for middle-class people in nice communities to say that ‘it will teach the parents to be a bit more responsible’. The reality is that the kind of people most likely to be hit by these measures are the ones who have struggled the most in responding constructively to pressure.

If we were in America, someone would already have used the term ‘tough love’: hit them where it hurts now, so that they can learn for the future. I see the ‘tough’ bit, but where is the love?

There is a reason for almost everything. Charlie Taylor did well to analyse the extent to which fines are paid for truancy. What he should also have done is explore the patterns of decision making that lead head teachers, council officers and the police to either withdraw penalty notices, or not to enforce them.
In most cases — I believe, though I can’t prove it, except anecdotally — individuals responding sensibly and compassionately to the situation recognise that imposing the fine or collecting it will make things worse, not better. Charlie Taylor’s solution is to take this out of the hands of these individuals and make the fine automatic.
You might argue — and he probably will, if he reads this article — that the consequences of truancy are so severe that the short term consequences to the families of truants are outweighed by the long-term benefits of attending education — ‘tough love’, by another name.
My question is: where is the evidence that this actually works? There is no intrinsic connection between taking money away from someone and inspiring them to go back to school. At the micro-level, the stigma of being poor, of not having branded trainers, of having to accept free school dinners, of wearing hand-me-downs, is one of the reasons why children from deprived backgrounds don’t like school. It’s not the only reason, but these things prey on the minds of teenagers more than most adults remember. If the result of a truancy fine is having to go to Cash-Converters to sell some prized possession in order to pay for food, then taking money away is going to make truancy worse, not better.
A couple of years ago we had the high profile stories of parents sent to prison because of the persistent truanting of their children. The message of the orchestrated PR campaign was clear: get your child to school, or go to prison. Did it work? Evidently not, or we wouldn’t be looking at another, similar, measure today.
The Conservatives went into the last election with a slogan about fixing ‘Broken Britain’. Mr Taylor and Mr Gove, you can’t fix things by breaking them some more.

2 Comments

  1. Annoyed Mother
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 23:16:00

    This is not, of course, the only issue with automatic docking of the fine from child benefit.  Take my case for example – I was relentlessly pursued by the school and education authority for the alleged non-attendance of my two children at school.  In my area I believe we have the highest number of penalty notices being issued and, from my experience, without any consideration, communication or thought.  Today I was found not guilty on both prosecutions under section 444(1).    If this proposal had been in place I would have automatically been made to pay the fine for two offences that I had not committed.

  2. Martin Turner
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 23:20:00

    Really sorry to hear about the way you’ve been pursued, and glad that you’ve been vindicated.
    You are absolutely right, of course — automatic docking is a way of baking-in injustice.

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