Will a stricter enforcement of truancy laws turn more Brits into ne'er do wells? That seems to be the argument made by Dr. Raymond Arthur of Teesside University when he says that before the government can implement tougher punishment for chronic school absences, they need to invest in improving the child-raising skills of today's parents.
He is arguing that laying the responsibility for truancy on parents will, counterintuitively, actually contribute to delinquency. Instead of straightening out both parents and children, he thinks it will create more dysfunctional parents.
Dr Arthur, who is conducting on-going research into the way in which the justice system treats children and families, said: "Demonising parents, like demonising children, will exacerbate a situation that for many parents is already complex and strained.
"In the early years of children's lives the aim should be to strengthen families, enabling them to play a full part in controlling their children's behaviour, and not to penalise families or to take responsibility away from them."
To demonstrate the worst case scenario, Arthur is using the fictional family portrayed in a popular comedy-drama Shameless currently airing on Britain's Channel 4 which documents the travails of a fictional family that is running seriously off track.
Arthur believes that the current punishments being considered by the government – mainly fines falling between £60 and £120 – could hit parents who are least able to absorb the expense, which would push them further into poverty. A plan to strip families of chronically truant children of their benefits could make the impact even bigger.
Arthur contends that while attempting to solve the problem by hitting the parents in the pocketbook has the advantage of being satisfying and easy to sell, it does little to actually cure society of its truancy problem. Any measure that aims to bring down the rate of school absenteeism will focus not only on fines, but also on the underlying societal, economic and family roots of the problem.
"To financially punish parents of young offenders could lead to the disintegration of already fragile family units.
"It will guarantee that families who are amongst the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the country will be penalised, despite the fact that the treatment they will receive is likely to harm them further and compound their problems."
The spokesman for the Department of Education said that the truancy policy needs to be set up in such a way as to provide a strong disincentive for parents to close their eyes to how often their kids miss school. Considering how damaging frequent absences could be to kids' futures, attempting an incremental solution would leave behind too many children that could be helped with more draconian measures. It is also important to remember that one approach does not exclude every other, the Department said.
"We are tackling absence before it causes long-term disadvantage. Powers to fine parents of children who do not attend school are just one of the ways we are emphasizing the importance of attendance."
In the United States, attempting to bring down truancy numbers by fining or even jailing parents isn't as controversial. Recently, a Hanford, California mother was sentenced to 180 days in jail after repeatedly failing to make sure that her children showed up to school on time. Meanwhile, the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, is deploying RFID chips in student ID cards to make tracking students throughout the day easier and more accurate.