PARENTS accused of failing to ensure their children attend school are facing criminal proceedings in the first move of its kind by the city council, the Evening News can reveal.
Three complaints have been filed in court over claims pupils in Edinburgh schools had attendance rates of as low as 46 per cent.
If convicted, penalties include a fine of up to £1000 or imprisonment of up to one month, under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.
Edinburgh City Council said it had taken these steps to improve attendance at school, pupil participation and performance, and insisted that the move was a last resort.
New targets for the current school year to increase attendance in primary schools have also been revised from 94.5 to 94.9 per cent, which is the equivalent of around 17,000 additional pupil days.
The target for secondary schools is to increase attendance from 91 to 91.4 per cent, the equivalent of around 13,000 pupil days.
As the News reported in March, there was a total of 23 cases being reviewed for prosecution and who were referred to a group set up to monitor parents and children who have been persistently skipping school over the last year.
However, court action is rare and the move is the first of its kind in the Capital. The three parties involved had been through a lengthy process of referrals and interventions which failed to improve attendance levels.
Once a child’s attendance drops below 85 per cent, this triggers a formal process to look into what issues are causing the absence.
Persistent offenders are referred to an education welfare officer who will visit and work with the family.
If absences continue despite this intervention, parents are asked to appear before the Area Attendance Advisory Group. If there is still no improvement, they are summoned to appear before the Attendance Order Review Group, in some cases on several occasions.
There is a set number of actions that have to be taken which are aimed at helping families, but the local authority said there had to be action available if needed.
Paul Godzik, the city’s education leader, said prosecution would always be a last resort but was necessary as parents had to be responsible for their children.
He said: “Prosecution is a last resort. Before we consider it, we will use all available recourses and statutory interventions to try and improve a pupil’s attendance.
“If, however, these steps do not help, and parents do not take adequate measures to improve their child’s attendance at school, then they will need to answer for their child’s poor attendance in court.
“This sends out a clear message to parents that poor attendance at school has serious consequences, and also that we as a council will do everything possible to help children get the education they deserve.”
Under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, local authorities are obliged to tackle truancy.
The three cases launched last week will be heard at the Justice of the Peace Court and are understood to be called in court in the next four to six weeks.
Attendance rates in Edinburgh schools have improved in recent years, although despite that 100 pupils were referred to the Children’s Reporter in 2009-10 for skipping school.
Some of those reported were as young as four and in their first year at school. However, there has been a significant drop in recent years, falling from 122 truants reported in 2008-9 and 156 in 2007-8.
Teaching unions have supported court action if all other measures have been exhausted, arguing that there must be some threat against parents who refuse to comply and ensure their children attend school.
In many cases, teaching lessons and timetables may be altered considerably to cater for pupils in challenging situations.
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association also highlighted the level of disruption in the classroom that can be caused by truancy, and the level of antisocial behaviour it can cause in communities which police must deal with.
However, the move has not been without its critics.
In August, headteachers called for councils to pursue a range of other measures to tackle truancy rather than taking parents to court.
It came after figures showed one council, North Lanarkshire, had secured convictions in fewer than five per cent of court cases.
While the city council is using the move to show that it can take a tough line with persistent offenders, School Leaders Scotland claimed taking parents to court was “time-consuming, bureaucratic and ineffective”.
Education officials took 74 parents to court, but only three were convicted and, in the past three years, no convictions of parents have been secured despite 43 cases coming being taken before the courts.
In response, North Lanarkshire Council argued that it had a legal duty to ensure that children attend and that it also uses other measures in an attempt to improve attendance.
Analysis: Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association.
This is interesting in that 20-25 years ago it was very difficult to take action against any parent. They had to be referred through various attendance sub-committees of school boards and the process was so long and tortuous. But, despite all this, some parents were prosecuted in the sheriff courts.
Now it is so unusual, it’s almost taken my breath away to learn that Edinburgh City Council has pursued this. I can only assume that it has been left with no alternative.
Every possible assistance and support is given to pupils with attendance problems and their parents. I’ve seen this myself in my own authority in Inverclyde.
There were special timetables, one-on-one teaching in some cases – a completely amended learning experience to cater to the pupil to ensure they stayed in school.
There are also people with chaotic lives, or whose parents have drug addiction. It’s a dreadful thing for a child to get themselves to school in those circumstances.
But there is, and will always be, a hardcore of people who will not attend and whose parents will not co-operate with teachers.
There has to be an ultimate sanction and I’m pleased Edinburgh is prepared to take this course of action.
Sporadic attendance creates learning and teaching difficulties seen in many classrooms.
The support workers in schools are the unsung heroes because they really put in a real shift to help these kids. Society wants children in school, the police want them in school and teachers want them in school, and there has to be a mechanism in place to ensure that happens.