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13 May 2002

Sarah doesn’t go to school any more

Proposals to take a tough line on truants make good talking points for politicians; but they simply

By Jenni Russell

Alison is a 41-year-old care assistant living in the north of England. Her two elder children are in their early twenties, and live with her ex-husband. By her second partner – who has offered no financial assistance since he left seven years ago – she has two teenage daughters still living at home.

Alison doesn’t see much of her children. She can’t afford to. She earns the minimum wage, £4.10 an hour, and even with the working families tax credit she needs to work, on average, a 60-hour week. She has a job at a nursing home caring for old people, and two days a week she works a double shift, from 7am to 9pm. The work is emotionally and physically exhausting. Alison washes the old people, feeds them, cleans up when they’re incontinent, talks to them about their fear of death. Last week, as on so many other occasions, she held an elderly woman as she died.

Alison also has the prime responsibility for her 88-year-old widowed grandmother, who has recently developed dementia. In line both with government policy and the old lady’s wishes, her family is trying to keep her at home. Six days a week, Alison gets up at 5.30am to drive the six miles to her grandmother’s house. There she dresses her, gives her medicine and prepares her breakfast, then returns home to get her daughters up.

Alison leaves for work at 6.45am. At 7am, Sarah, her 15-year-old, goes back to bed. Sarah stopped wanting to go to school two years ago. In the past six months, she has scarcely been to school at all. She is very fat, a target for bullies (or so her mother thinks); she says the teachers pick on her. She would like a home tutor, or a job, but neither is possible. Alison has tried to argue, bribe and threaten Sarah into attending school, but Sarah’s response has been to cut herself with any sharp object there is to hand.

She managed to get Sarah an appointment with a child psychologist. “Use a clean knife next time – then you won’t get an infection,” the psychologist advised, before refusing to see them again, on the grounds that Sarah was not a serious case and was just going through “a difficult patch”. The school, a local comprehensive, has offered no help at all.

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After Sarah had cut herself for the fifth time, Alison put her in the car and drove around the town, trying to find someone to take Sarah off her hands “before I killed her”. But Sarah is not sufficiently disturbed to merit help from social services. She isn’t being abused, she isn’t on drugs, she isn’t committing any crimes, and she isn’t homeless. Her mother is paying the mortgage and has a job. As far as social services are concerned, this isn’t a problem family. Others need help far more.

Now, Alison has heard that Tony Blair wants to stop the parents of persistent truants receiving child benefit. She is a stoical woman, but the news sent her into a panic. She rang her sister, sobbing down the phone. She feared losing more than £17 a week – money it would take her five hours of work to replace. She thought – mistakenly – that she might get a criminal record. But what caused her most anguish was her sense of being utterly trapped by a society that offered her no practical support, only punishment and social disapproval.

Perhaps, under the proposed system, Alison would not be a target for fines. Perhaps her hours of work, and her attempts to see psychologists and teachers, would count in mitigation. Perhaps someone would spend a couple of hours assessing the evidence against her before dismissing it. But what then? Would she be offered the help she has been denied so far? Or will Sarah’s truancy remain nobody’s problem if it isn’t judged to be Alison’s fault?

The government appears to take a very simplistic view of truanting, assuming that the phenomenon is due largely to irresponsible parents not bothering to ensure their children turn up for school. That may sometimes be true – some parents would rather see their children earning; others, themselves unemployed, like to have children available to help with moonlighting or petty crime. Maybe the threat of losing benefits would work effectively on them. But most truants’ parents have hopes and expectations of their children. What they don’t have is authority or control.

Most truants, like Sarah, come from broken families. They may have lost any sense of an authority worth respecting. Their mothers find it hard to influence them, sometimes because they are out at work, and sometimes because their children can see how poor and powerless their mothers are. They do not provide compelling role models. Cutting their benefits would only make them more desperate, less effective and less worthy of respect.

Alison is bewildered by Blair’s belief that threatening her would enable her to do something magical to get Sarah to school. Sarah is too large for Alison to load her physically into the car and drive her there. Even if she did, Sarah would walk out again.

The real issue raised by truancy is not how to get children through the school gates. It’s why they won’t stay, why they have decided that education is so unrewarding, and what alternatives can be offered. Our school system is based around the belief that all children should be interested in learning English grammar and chemical equations. By the time they enter their teenage years, a sizeable minority are not. There is no point in simply deploring it. We should either find a way to motivate the disaffected – by giving them extra help and making learning more attractive – or we should offer them training and apprenticeships, or even permission to start work instead. Such children could be given education credits and the chance to return to learning later on, when the charm of unskilled or semi-skilled work has palled.

Blair is right to see the aimless existence of persistent truants as a social problem. But even if he managed to force reluctant children back into their existing classes, he would only make the situation in education worse. Teachers are already struggling to give an adequate education to those who want to be there. Adding disruptive, demotivated children makes it more difficult for everybody else to learn.

One of this government’s strengths has been its determination to act intelligently in dealing with complex social issues. The Social Exclusion Unit, the SureStart programme for deprived toddlers, welfare-to-work measures and the mentoring schemes for troubled families: all these recognise that, to change behaviour, you need to do much more than telling people that what they are doing is wrong.

The truanting proposal, offering a simplistic solution to a difficult issue, appears to run counter to all that. It does Blair no credit.

The names have been changed.

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