Prosecuting parents for truancy: who pays the price?

In the Foreword to J M Moore’s assessment of participants’ responses to the workshops and toolkits carried out as part of the Centre for Criminal Justice’s Justice Matters project, Tammy McGloughlin writes, ‘Far from being a means of delivering social justice, [the criminal justice system] is the cause of much social injustice, with the combined criminal justice institutions being deeply socially harmful’.

A dramatic, and sometimes tragic, example of this is the prosecution of parents whose children have not attended school regularly. Our small research project, funded by the Oakdale Trust, reports on the prosecution, and threats of prosecution, targeted at parents.

Many of the children and young people who do not attend school regularly have special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND); some 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 outlines the 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. 

Truancy is a gendered ‘offence’

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, nine were women.  It is clear that women are disproportionately pursued for this offence.

Our research set out to get first-hand testimonies from parents who have experience of the system. We created 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
  • whether or not they had been prosecuted or threatened with prosecution 
  • their views given that they had been directly affected by this issue 

A link to the online anonymous survey was placed on a number of sites where parents discuss child-care issues, such as Mumsnet.  

Limited choices

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.

Almost every parent reported that their child was anxious, often highly anxious. They described night terrors, extreme reactions of fear when it was time to go to school. Some reported acts of self-harm and suicide threats. They reported there were meltdowns, vomiting, migraine, collapsing.

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.

Some parents have taken their children off-roll to avoid prosecution. In our sample we have 16 parents who have taken this step, usually to avoid prosecution. For some children home-schooling is, of course, a valid option and parents can successfully home-school their children if they have the time, skills and resources.  This applies when it is freely chosen, and not imposed by the fear of prosecution.  

The penalties for home schooling

For those parents who choose to home-school and who have access to resources and networks it can lead to positive outcomes. But for the children in our survey whose parents were forced into home-schooling by fear of prosecution, the need to educate at home created enormous stress for the parents and entailed the loss of their earnings.

In this sample of 16 home-schooling parents of 19 children, two children attended a fee-paying online school, and one did well at home, the parent reporting that he is now happy and doing well. The others appeared not to be having any structured instruction. They were denied an education. Many of the parents wrote that the school did not understand the difficulties their child faced. ‘No understanding, no support’ was a typical remark. 

They felt that schools do not fully understand what it means to be inclusive and that SEND discrimination happens all the time, with schools imposing sanctions and behaviour management strategies on vulnerable families and children

All the parents reported that it was impossible to force their fearful and panicky children into school. 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.

Rona Epstein is Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry Law School, Geraldine Brown is Assistant Professor at Coventry University, and Sarah O’Flynn is Head of Post Graduate Taught Programmes, Principal Lecturer, University of Roehampton

The research report is available at:  

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