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Lord Swinfen: On that particular paragraph, I wonder whether it is wise to specify "day pupils". I know that there may not be many boarding pupils in local education authority schools, but what would be the position if there was a boarding pupil who failed to turn up for instruction, even though present in the school, without due cause? It may be an abstruse point, but it could mean that the school had no authority to chase him up and make certain that he had to attend lessons.
Baroness Blatch: Perhaps the noble Baroness would pick up my noble friend's point and mine at the same time. In Amendment No. 185C the Government have completely missed the target itself. The distinction between authorised and non-authorised needs to be understood. There are some schools which authorise, rather casually, absences from school. Sadly, in some cases, particularly where children are not easily dealt with in a classroom, it is easier to find some way of authorising their absence than not.
It seems to me that there are a number of important points. One is total absences from school. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, made a very important point. How many children are not in school on any given day? Then one looks for reasons why they are not there. The authorised absences need to be looked at because the policy for authorised absences between one school and
Secondly, on unauthorised absences, in Amendment No. 185C we are putting the onus on the governing body to do something about unauthorised absences. I believe that the teachers in our classrooms are pretty busy people and frequently the only thing that they can do about unauthorised absences is to do home visits, to see where the children are, and to liaise with the police and social services. Often these children are roaming around the streets, standing on street corners and getting up to no good.
If the family have not given reasons why they are out of school, and the school has not given them permission to be out of school, then we are talking about a difficult group of people. If you have a school where a head teacher and the teachers are highly committed to good education, and want their children to be in school, the fact that they are not there may well be beyond their control, not within it.
Here we are putting the onus on the governors for getting those figures down and getting the number of unauthorised absences down. It seems to me that there must be some case for putting that onus on families. Why is it that their children are not in school? If they are not in school it is difficult for the school to act in loco parentis for those children. There needs to be some recognition and understanding that the school and the school teachers cannot do this alone. It seems to me to be grossly unfair to use legislation to put an obligation on the schools to cope and to control unauthorised absences.
When we were in office I had a lot to do with exposing this issue. That is a prerequisite for knowing what is going on in schools. What are the numbers of children who are not in school on any given day? We should have two columns, one for those who are authorised and one for those who are not authorised. At the outset I made the point that LEAs and Ofsted should be as interested in the policy for authorising absences as they are for the incidents of unauthorised absences, and schools may not be the ones to blame. It would be quite wrong to put that onus on the schools.
Lord Peston: I was slightly puzzled by what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. Surely the law still holds that during the period of compulsory schooling the parents do have a responsibility. Secondly, I should have thought the one great merit of Amendment No. 185C is, to use her word, exposure. What this amendment does is precisely what she seems to think is important. I am puzzled by why she is critical of it. It seems to me that it says very much more than before, and that the Secretary of State wants this matter exposed. To echo my noble friend, she did not say, in
Baroness Blatch: The responsibility for children attending school must rest with parents. It cannot be the responsibility of schools to see that children leave their homes and arrive at school. They may go somewhere else on the way. If they check in for assembly and then disappear, which is another form of skipping school, they are technically in school. They are there for registration and then disappear for the rest of the day, perhaps roaming the streets, they are not recorded technically as unauthorised absences but as attending school. So there are problems.
My first point is that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that that responsibility must lie with the parents. Secondly, as far as exposure is concerned, that is already done. The system at the moment requires schools to register attendance in school, authorised absences and unauthorised absences. We know the picture. The picture is there for the DfEE and for the local education authority. The third problem is that the Government have chosen to put the responsibility on the governors and the school for unauthorised absences.
I am simply saying that much of the responsibility for unauthorised absences will be parents who do not take enough care that their children not only leave home for school, but, in fact, arrive at school. Why should it be a legal obligation on the part of the school to get that figure down? Some of the measures are very practical, but they are measures for which the school teachers simply do not have time; that is, home visits, finding out why the child is not in school and liaising with the police. They need outside help. That is what I thought education welfare officers were about. It is important that the obligation is as much on them as on the governors of the school.
Baroness Seccombe: I support my noble friend Lady Blatch. I also draw the Committee's attention to the situation where parents are brought to court because their child is not attending school. I am horrified at the length of time that seems to pass in that process. Usually by the time the parents appear in court there have been about four terms when the attendance of the child has been absolutely abysmal--two or three times a week, if that, for half days.
Lord Peston: I do not wish to prolong this discussion, but there is nothing between us on the subject of parents. Even if there were, the law is the law when it comes to the parents' responsibility for the child attending school. I do not see that this amendment in any way detracts from that.
I have two thoughts on this. One is that I make sure that my child is at school. I believe that getting the child into school is approximately where my responsibility ends, for that day at least. I find it hard to believe that the teachers do not have some in loco parentis responsibility. I assume
I hope that both noble Baronesses agree that one task of the teachers is to make the pupils feel that it is worth while going to school. I am not saying that most unauthorised absences are connected with the fact that children think that school is a waste of time--I hope that is not the case--but a reasonable policy objective is making the school an attractive place. The main point of the amendment is not to undermine the parents but to encourage them, while accepting an explicit role for the school. For the last time, I support the amendment.
Baroness Blatch: I hope that this is the last time that I shall come back on a point. I would rather come down more heavily on the responsibility of parents and toughen and strengthen the law on forcing parents to see that their children attend school. I am concerned that a school serving a tough area in which there is a high incidence of absence will be deemed a "baddie" because that is how it will appear in the tables. The opposite will be the case in the leafy lanes where the co-operation of parents is at a high level. In those areas, without any effort on the part of teachers, children will arrive in school and stay there for the whole day.
Where there is a high level of unauthorised absences, the Bill's provision is misplaced in putting the onus on the school and the governors to reduce that level. The responsibility for getting children into school must be with the parents, who must ensure that they stay there. Once at school, loco parentis comes into play; it is the responsibility of the school to keep them there.
Baroness Blackstone: The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, is right in saying that there are few state boarding schools. They do not have to keep attendance registers for their boarders because it is assumed that pupils are in school. They are in total loco parentis. I expect any kind of boarding school, whether independent or state, immediately to follow up a child who is absent.
I turn to the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I am grateful for the support I received from my noble friend Lord Peston because I, too, am puzzled by the way in which she has attacked the amendment. I had thought that it would be widely welcomed and accepted. Of course parents have the prime responsibility; of course the onus must be on parents; and of course the Government entirely recognise that. As she rightly said, some schools have a more difficult problem than others in grappling with truancy. But the amendment is basically about truancy; in other words, non-authorised absences. I accept that perhaps some schools are abusing the system of authorised absences and allowing children to be away when they should be at school. We shall want to examine that and seek evidence of such authorised absences being granted by schools.
I entirely accept that this is not a matter only for schools. It is also a matter for the education welfare service, which has a prime responsibility for following up children who are not attending schools. However, it is
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is concerned with the way in which the juvenile court procedures operate and is trying to reduce the time which some cases take. Indeed, in the Crime and Disorder Bill the Government are introducing parenting orders for school attendance offences and will give magistrates more flexibility in dealing with them.
I hope that in the light of my response to those questions, the Committee will accept the Government's strong commitment to trying to improve attendance at all schools. I commend the amendment to the Committee.