HC Deb 01 July 1997 vol 297 cc112-4 3.36 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place duties upon schools, local education authorities and parents to identify promptly and act as necessary in cases of child absenteeism from school, to ensure attendance or attention to the absent child's educational needs; and for related purposes. I am honoured to present my School Absenteeism Bill to the new Labour Government for their consideration. It deals with the difficult problem of child absenteeism from primary schools. It seeks to speed up the process by which schools and local education authorities act to ensure school attendance as a basic prerequisite to meeting the child's educational needs. The problem is severe.

On 4 June, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) apprised my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of the astonishing fact that 100.000 children were absent from school in England and Wales. He replied: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. … There has to be a better way to approach the problem. If not, we shall find that social costs mount up, … and those 100,000 young people may also end up later incapable of finding work or working for any length of time."—[Official Report, a June 1997; Vol. 295. c. 386–87.] In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out that absenteeism placed children at risk of being drawn into patterns of anti-social and criminal behaviour.

So the Government believe that regular school attendance is vital in fostering social development, self-discipline, concentration and good attainment. Studies by the Office for Standards in Education and other distinguished studies confirm that irregular attendance undermines the educational process and leads to educational disadvantage. Poor examination results correlate closely to non-attendance.

In my constituency, which covers part of the London borough of Waltham Forest, absenteeism is twice the national average. While local efforts are closing the gap, the national average is getting worse. The causes of absenteeism are well documented. Deprivation is linked with school non-attendance, both in my constituency and throughout the nation. Some parents struggle above their poor circumstances to give their children a flying start in education. One Vietnamese refugee in a local high-rise council block in my constituency is proud to have a full-time job at Tesco and a son at Cambridge, but he is exceptional.

A way forward could be to identify vulnerable groups within the broad categorisation of deprivation. For example, there is strong evidence that children of working mothers attend school more regularly than children with mothers at home. A targeted programme in schools could help.

In my Bill, the problem of absenteeism is separated from that of truancy. Unauthorised absenteeism at primary school usually arises from the failure of carers to exercise their responsibility. Truancies often occur among older children, and arise from bad educational habits that are laid down early in their school life. By focusing on initial absenteeism among primary school children, the Government can nip the problem in the bud. Small children with learning readiness are potentially good achievers. Coupled with the Government's programme to reduce class sizes, a carefully worked-out strategy could bring about startling improvements in attendance and achievement.

In England, there are many unauthorised absences. The numbers given range from the report contained in The Sunday Times of 15 June 1997, which said that about 568,000 primary school children missed at least half a day last year without permission, to a Unison survey that found that 80,000 children scarcely attend school at all.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) is already well aware, under the current law, parents, schools and local education authorities share responsibility for school attendance. The law is comprehensive and complex. There is a great deal of bureaucracy involved when schools disseminate information to a wide range of public bodies. I should like the process to be streamlined in order to release more human resources in schools for early preventive action against unauthorised absenteeism.

Close scrutiny of the figures suggests that there are some avenues of change relating to the role of local education authorities. Between September 1991 and September 1994, the total number of school attendance orders rose from 40 to 56 a year; education supervision orders rose from 81 to 314 a year; the number of prosecutions of parents rose from 2,803 to 3,688 a year. Those figures show that LEAs generally circumvent the use of school attendance and education supervision orders. While prosecutions have an important role to play, the dominant mode of "prosecution first" is primarily about punishing the parent, not necessarily ensuring the child's right to education.

I propose that school attendance orders be brought into greater use before prosecutions. I also propose that head teachers be given leave to apply directly to court for school attendance orders, thereby ensuring that children re-enter school at the earliest opportunity. My Bill would ensure that there was a fast-track procedure in magistrates courts for obtaining those orders.

Statistics show a wide fluctuation in the will of local education authorities to undertake prosecutions. Will the Minister consider taking steps towards ensuring a more co-ordinated response from LEAs?

The education welfare officer plays a key role before any legal action is taken on unauthorised absences. It has been shown that, if a respected figure such as an education welfare officer has immediate contact with the pupil's home from the first day of absence, the action has a dramatic effect on improving attendance rates. Setting up networks of help, such as trained volunteer mentors for telephone and home contact, is also extremely helpful and cost-effective. I propose that first-day unauthorised absence contact should be made mandatory in all primary schools.

There have also been some remarkable successes in schools serving deprived areas; we need to make such best practice the norm. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) is the chair of governors at Kelvin Grove primary school in Lewisham. Belinda Kennedy, who runs that school's attendance project, tells me:

The benefits are dramatic. Our unauthorised absence rate has dropped to only 0.5 per cent. It makes me wonder how many other schools are in urgent need of a simple, everyday approach to improving attendance and punctuality. The main initiative by the previous Government was the grants education support and training—GEST—scheme, whereby £15.4 million was allocated to 90 English LEAs in 1995–96. An evaluation by an independent team commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment says: Schools can, and do, have a significant impact in improving attendance and reducing disaffection. However, the range of projects is very wide and the methods of evaluation primitive.

My Bill, by contrast, builds on carefully targeted initiatives: a mandatory one-day unauthorised absence contact initiative front primary school to home; primary schools to introduce targeted attendance programmes for at-risk groups—for example, children of at-home mothers; and school attendance and education supervision orders emphasised over prosecution orders. It would establish a fast-track procedure for head teachers to obtain attendance orders through magistrates courts; and escort orders, whereby courts were given a new probation-like power to order parents to take absenting children to schools, backed up by the threat of a substantial fine.

The Government would clarify priorities and procedures, so that local education authorities operated to similar standards. Schools and education welfare officers in multicultural areas would ensure information and support for non-English-speaking parents. The Government would evaluate and disseminate best practice initiatives nationally; information-gathering processes on absenteeism would be streamlined; and human resources in schools would be moved towards earlier intervention on behalf of the child.

I fully support the Government's commitment to education, education, education, and I hope that the Minister will make use of my small contribution via the Bill to reinforce the importance of primary school attendance.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Charlotte Atkins, Mr. Richard Burden, Ms Judith Church, Mr. Tony Colman, Miss Melanie Johnson, Mr. David Kidney, Ms Oona King, Judy Mallaber, Mr. Chris Pond, Ms Christine Russell and Mr. Paddy Tipping.