The mother of all stunts

Jailing a mother because her kids skip school is gesture politics, with a very real consequence.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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New Labour’s crackdown on school truants has claimed its first martyr.

Patricia Amos, mother of five, was sentenced on 9 May to 60 days in jail for failing to make two of her daughters go to school. She has now been refused bail. The truants, 13-year-old Jackie and 15-year-old Emma, are said to be ‘devastated’.

Education secretary Estelle Morris welcomed the decision, saying that she hoped it would send a ‘shock wave’ to Britain’s parents. The ‘shock wave’ phrase is telling. Amos’ sentence is less a just punishment for a crime than it is a political statement. Amos is behind bars, not to stop her kids from truanting, but as a gesture that New Labour means what it says when it creates a new law.

Amos is thought to be the first person to be sentenced under these powers – an amendment to the 1996 Education Act that came into force last year, which raised the maximum penalty for failing to send a child to school to a £2500 fine and three months in jail (1). This is just one of the latest of a raft of New Labour lifestyle laws around noisy neighbours, parenting, anti-social behaviour and so on. Despite much hype at the time, many of these new laws have sat unused on the statute books – indicating that New Labour finds it easier to make up laws than it does to enforce them. Unfortunately for Amos, a gesture of law-enforcement occasionally has to be made; and when it is, the ridiculous character of laws such as these becomes clear.

The idea that jailing parents could do anything to stop truanting is nonsense. How will locking up the girls’ mother, and packing them off to stay with their elder sister, foster their commitment to education or their respect for the law? Parents are responsible for their children, but the notion that there is a seamless link between parents’ behaviour or punishment and their children’s actions is simplistic to the point of absurdity.

Far from enforcing a sense of parental responsibility, the blunt use of the law in this way does the opposite. It assumes that parents cannot discipline their children, and neither can schools. To bring in the law as a big stick with which to beat parents of recalcitrant kids implies that there can be no discipline: only punishment.

Although the girls have reportedly not truanted since their mother was sentenced, they were given a day off school to visit her in jail. It might get them a GCSE in Guilt, but what else?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

Parents v children v teachers…, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Judge refuses bail for mother of truants, Guardian, 16 May 2002

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Topics Politics


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