Benefit cuts for parents will fail if we ignore the reasons why young people skip class

Playing truant is no game. Young student via kilukilu/

David Cameron has announced further measures to curb pupils’ absence from school through the use of financial sanctions. Fines are already imposed on parents when a “child is missing from school without good reason” as a legal action to enforce school attendance. The latest measures mean that those who do not or cannot pay the fine will see their child benefit deducted by £120.

It’s time for a confession. During my extended adolescent rebellion, truancy featured as part of my life. It was a way of escaping possible failure at school and some difficult circumstances at home. It provided me with a sense of adventure, of uncertainty and of risk in a world where I perceived myself as having little control. My parents did all they could to try to engage me in school, but the more they did, the more a wedge came between us.

In the end, the solution to my own particular circumstances came through intensive and concerted efforts of teachers, and my local youth worker, working with my family, to re-engage me in the education system. Since Cameron’s announcement, I’ve been reflecting on what those people around me did right. They listened, were patient, challenged me but supported me and thought of creative ways to help me to begin to see the value of why schooling mattered.

Those pivotal moments are the things that yield longer term and more valuable change – they certainly were for me.

No quick fixes

The prime minister, like all politicians who extol the virtues of a “good education”, starts from an undoubtedly noble position. Few could argue against the idea that children will benefit from attending school. Truancy can in many cases be a major factor in provoking further social problems for young people.

But when politicians rely on describing things through a dichotomy, such as “attend/truant” or “victim/offender”, such simplicity strips an issue of all its difficult and challenging complexity. Truancy is one example where causes are complex and there are no quick fixes, punitive or otherwise.

But it’s vital that any policies recognise that truancy has multiple causes, encompassing low self-esteem, abuse in the home, caring responsibilities, social isolation and educational failure. Research in 2003 for the then Department for Education and Skills found that around a quarter of all young people truant without the collusion of their parents, finding themselves caught in a cycle that is hard to break. Parents perceived the main causes for truancy to be bullying, peer pressure and problems with teachers.

When problems are multiple and complex, they require more intensive and considered solutions. Chris Yeates, general secretary of the teachers union NASUWT, is right to argue that punitive financial sanctions are more likely to contribute to deprivation and chaos in those families already more prone to risk. These are often the families that most need help, not more welfare conditionality – where benefits depend on a certain type of behaviour, such as fines for non-attendance. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has argued previously that welfare conditionality could further distance people from support.

Listen to young people

Cameron’s announcement once again shows the gulf between policy pronouncements and the everyday experiences of young people. We could start by doing much more to hear from those who engage in skipping school.

Recent research in the US acknowledges that:

In the process of addressing truancy as a national problem… it seems that less attention has been given to understanding the individual characteristics and contexts of truancy as seen through the daily routines of truants.

In short, we base our policy interventions not from the starting point of how young people describe their lives, but from the point of the “preferred futures” we determine to be best for young people. To an extent, academic research mirrors this, and in so doing, academics collectively put young people into neat boxes and reduce social challenges from the fluid and volatile to the absolute.

So the issues are complex. And for that reason, more fines are unlikely to result in a signifcant impact.

Jason Pandya-Wood has previously conducted evaluations for national and local government. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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