NO to criminalising children and parents

it doesn't work and it hurts families

Punishment does not reduce absence

Since ‘truancy’ became a criminal offence in 1996 there has been an ongoing ramping up of repercussions but no reduction in unauthorised absence as a consequence. It is evidenced that fines and punishment don’t work to reduce absence, a matter which was raised at an Attendance Action Alliance meeting chaired by former Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi. The increased focus on punitive measures in the absence of any evidence is indefensible.

The Schools Bill will increase the numbers of young people being drawn into the criminal justice system. This will happen due to the surveillance, data sharing and demonisation of children ‘not in school’, because of the live attendance tracking by the government, shared with police, and through the policy of involving agencies such as the police and potentially Home Office in absence and the linking of absence and criminality.

None of this helps children and young people, it harms them.


“The idea that disciplining families and exerting threats and fines supports attendance is socially repugnant and scientifically illiterate.”

Dr Chris Bagley

Punishing vulnerable families

Such measures hurt instead of help children and their families.

There are fears that fines and threat of prison will be applied to parents whose children experience barriers attending school. These parents currently experience high levels of pressure and threats but the numbers who are actually fined are relatively low. Increased government focus and pressure on attendance along with the measures laid out in the Schools Bill will mean that these families are highly likely to be fined, punished, or to be referred to social services, the two pathways laid out.

‘Truancy’ is a gendered offence.

The Crime and Justice Studies research Prosecuting parents for truancy: who pays the price? noted that women were pursued disproportionately for the offence and moreover that this could not be explained by other factors such as single mothers raising children. 71% of the 16,406 people prosecuted for truancy in 2017 were women, 74% of those convicted were women, 80% of those given a suspended sentence were women, 83% of those given a community order were women and nine of the ten people sent to prison were women.

Fines and prosecution do not work in increasing attendance, except in the very shortest of terms.

The report concluded that:
“It is evident that the punitive approach leads to harm for parents, children and vulnerable families. It also appears to be ineffective in getting reluctant and fearful children back into the classroom.
• The current law is cruel and discriminatory and does not achieve its purpose of reducing the number of children who do not attend school regularly.
• Our main conclusion and recommendation is therefore that the criminal law should not be applied to parents whose children do not attend school regularly. It should be a civil matter – a child welfare issue.”

“Reduced dependence on the legal route and financial penalties – we all need to be reminded that punishment is an ineffective way of improving human behaviour”

British Psychological Society 

51 weeks imprisonment is now the maximum sentence for a s444 offence, made law by use of secondary legislation to amend the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This will also be a possible sentence for failure to comply with a school attendance order.

“We are astounded at proposed penalties to be handed out by schools, for children who fail to attend for whatever reason; which will lead to fines and prosecutions for many parents, some of whom are already known to local authorities for Section 47 or 17 support per the Children Act.

In addition, it seems likely that these proposals will further criminalise Black and minority ethnic children and families, specifically those subject to exploitation or disadvantaged by health considerations.”

The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK

Police involvement can be dangerous

The relationship between non-attendance and poor outcomes is complex and needs careful unpicking so as not to worsen the harm done to these children and young people. 

That children failed by the system have higher likelihood of ending up with a wide range of poor outcomes is being used to argue for early police involvement. The reality is though that most children and young people who miss school are in no way involved in criminal activity.

Repeated and high profile claims that link non-attendance with criminal behaviour results in the stigmatising of children and young people who aren’t able, for whatever reason, to go to school.

This can act as a flag for higher levels of State scrutiny and intervention and is particularly harmful in conjunction with the big database approach of this government. It can also have serious repercussions in the way that they are treated, particularly by agencies like the police.

Police involvement can, and does, put children and young people at risk and can be particularly dangerous for particular groups of children and young people who already experience discrimination. One high profile recent example is the case of child Q who was strip searched by police who wrongly suspected her of carrying drugs but this was in no way an isolated incident. Figures reveal that five children a week, not under arrest, are strip searched by police. Three quarters of these children were from ethnically diverse backgrounds, more than half were Black.


The dangers of police in multi-agency settings
From the No Police in Schools campaign.

“We have seen the impact of police in multi-agency settings. SBPOs threatening students by saying that they will ‘get the housing in’ on their families if they continue to misbehave; community-based officers introducing racist narratives about ‘gang’ affiliations in social work meetings without evidence; and officers using domestic violence to construct racialised families as ‘unfit’, as opposed to ‘in need’.”

“In our report ‘Decriminalise the Classroom’, which surveyed 554 people from across Greater Manchester, we asked community members how they would like funding to be spent when it comes to education. The answer was youth workers, counsellors and more teachers.”

What about children and young people who DO become involved in criminal activity?

Even when children and young people are caught up in crime and trafficked through criminality such as county lines activity police involvement can be problematic. There is evidence that children are often treated as perpetrators rather than supported as the victims that they are and although improvements are being made this still remains a considerable issue.


Only 2% of persistently absent young people become involved in serious violence. 

Of those young people who are cautioned for a serious violence offence 63% did not miss school, 37% did.

Figures from Home Office’s Violence Reduction Unit Programme Delivery Team, Attendance Action Alliance May meeting minutes.

Treating young people as potential offenders on the basis that they are absent from school will lead to damaging outcomes.  

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