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Skip school – and turn your mother into a criminal

On the face of it, this is a story about school truancy, and I have labelled it as “education”, because it is indeed in that general vicinity. But I think this is really a story about law. Can it truly be right to send a mother to prison for failing to make her child go to school?

A mother who became the first parent in Britain to be jailed for letting her children play truant was yesterday sent to prison again for the same offence after her youngest daughter repeatedly skipped school.

Patricia Amos, from Banbury, Oxfordshire, was sentenced by Bicester magistrates to 28 days’ imprisonment after failing to ensure her 14-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, attended lessons regularly. She had denied the charge, saying she had made “every effort” to get her daughter to go to school.

Amos was jailed for 60 days in May 2002 because Jacqueline and her older sister, Emma, persistently played truant from Banbury school. She was released on appeal after 28 days and vowed to make her daughters attend lessons, but after initial improvement – including a school prize for Emma – Jacqueline’s attendance slipped again to 61% last autumn.

One thing I do know, which is that now that the definition of child abuse has thus been widened to include achieving a school attendance rate of only 61% for your child, it will inevitably be widened still further, to include such things as smoking in the vicinity of your children, allowing them to eat sweeties and sticky buns, and no doubt in the decades to come, failing to teach them a foreign language or to give them a solid grounding in how to play computer games.

I agree that it lots of cases, forcing a particular child of a particular parent to attend a particular school rather than roam these particular streets and get into that particular sort of bad company may be a good thing, in this particular case. But the law itself is weakend when it is used to enforce something so controversially virtuous as this. Should everything that our rulers think desirable become compulsory? And everything considered improper and uncouth by our rulers illegal?

There is also the beginnings here of the creepy principle that you are legally responsible for the wrongdoings of another. Surely one of the basic ideas involved in the rule of law is that the individual who commits the crime is the one who should be punished for it, not someone else who might perhaps have influenced the criminal. Holding families legally responsible for individual behaviour sounds very collectivist to me.

File under wedge, thin end of.

And watch out, home educators.

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34 comments to Skip school – and turn your mother into a criminal

  • Dave

    What is the score with home education? I assume there are hoops the government make you jump through to prove that you are actually doing something?

  • bob

    of course not educating your child is child abuse..

    The woman should have the kids taken off her and have them put into care. why the hell are we paying her to raise them.

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Failure to attend indoctrin…ahem, education…will result in imprisonment. The state has spoken. All will obey.

  • bob

    I agree with you that our state education system is nothing but liberial brainwashing machine.

    but to be fair this wasnt his point. his point was that non educatation of offspring shouldnt be considered child abuse.. the mans a fool.

  • Sam Roony

    Never been sure what “asymmetric warfare” was supposed to be, but this sure is asymmetric lawmaking. Be sanctioned for not turning up; but no sanction for not getting what you turned up for.

  • The man who is a fool presumably being me.

    But, bob, you misunderstand me. The question here is not: Is neglecting or abusing your children wrong? Of course it is wrong. The question is: Is this particular manifestation of it so uncontroversially wrong that those who do it should be placed in the same legal category as robbers and assaulters? Should this kind of thing be a crime? Should it be considered child abuse of such a terrible sort that the criminal law is unleashed upon it?

    That is a much harder question to answer.

    In general, the idea that the law should outlaw all things which are merely wrong is a spectacularly bad one, and is a the root of many of our current political troubles. It is the basic reason why there are simply so many laws, and far too many laws.

  • toolkien

    I live near Milwaukee, WI. I heard on the new yesterday that the powers that be were running an operation against 58 parents whose kids have high truancy rates and fining them about $700 (if I remember rightly). This doesn’t approach 28 days in the clink, but it does show that we are well on our way.

    It would seem that when a person reaches an age where they are beyond the parents control to ask, cajole, intimidate, or force to learn, that child is old enough to be held accountable for its actions. Put the child in the clink for a little while.

    If the worry is what is the child doing instead of learning while playing truant, there are laws in place already to handle the cases as they arise. Putting a parent in the slam because their child won’t go to the State sactioned conditioning camps shouldn’t itself be a crime.

    Maybe someone should hold the schools accountable as well. If the child is on their property and then leaves, it seems that the parent should hold them accountable for failing their duties under in loco parentis. Who was the last responsible person closest to the child?

  • S. Weasel

    You know, bob, promoting the importance of education using horribly mangled syntax has got to have a cracking good joke in it somehow. I just can’t think what it is.

  • Bolie Williams IV

    I’m concerned about the general trend (at least in the States) towards criminalizing the behavior of children. We are starting to arrest children for bad behavior, like kissing a girl who didn’t want to be kissed and making threats. As much as I believe that children should be treated as individuals and given as much responsibility for themselves as possible, they are NOT adults and should not be held to the same standards. I don’t expect my 3-year-old to, for example, take care of our 1-year-old without supervision.

    This should be an administrative issue with the school. Fines are certainly appropriate. But jail time is absurd, either for the parent or the child. Perhaps the child should not be able to get a driver’s license or something similiar.

    Bolie IV

  • Verity

    There’s a missing element in this. According to that bastion of truth, honour and all that is good, BBC News: “out of 160 occasions when the girl should have been at school, she was only present on 98. Of the 62 occasions when Jacqueline was not at school, her mother had been complicit in 52”.

    Whether they were going out on shopping trips, staying home to watch their favourite soaps or whether the girl was simply earning a few extra quid for the household doing a little light afternoon lap dancing, those 52 absences were partly engineered by the mother.

    The mother’s a single mother of five, by the way and a former drug addict now on methadone. No mention of a job.

  • Frank P

    I agree Verity. Though least law possible to maintain order and freedom should be the aim of society, whatever is neccesarily enacted must be enforced or it is mockery, not law. Repeated contravention must ultimately lead to custodial sentences after all circumstances are taken into account and all other methods have failed – even in such cases involving dysfuctional familes, that do raise the heckles of libertarians. According to teachers it does have a deterrent effect on other sloppy parents and even Ms Amos has, on previous occasions, admitted that she deserved it. One begins to suspect that she finds it easier to get a fix in stir than ‘on the out’, so perhaps she enjoys the occasional package deal at Her Majesty’s Holiday Camp away from the kids. Evidently we fund her, whatever she decides. As for her daughter, let’s hope she learns something from this masterclass in social engineering and does not become just another statistic in the swelling ranks of the underclass.

  • Guy Herbert

    The principle of criminal responsibility for other people’s actions (without being an accessory) is well established and thriving, Brian. Have you not seen the current minatory DVLA ads, or this? There are probably dozens of other examples by now.

  • Johnathan

    Brian, as an aside, consider this: as the State seeks to make parenting more onerous and filled with red tape, more young people will give up on the idea of having children, either their own or by adoption. But as David Carr pointed out in a post below, one of Europe’s main problems is a shrinking young population.

    If we want to encourage people to make babies, it might be an idea for the State to keep its nose out of family affairs.

    Just a thought.

  • Verity

    Aaargh! Guy! We can tell you’re an accountant!

  • Shannon Love

    “There is also the beginnings here of the creepy principle that you are legally responsible for the wrongdoings of another.”

    In the case of children, this has always been the case. Minors are by legal definition, people who cannot make their own legally binding decisions. Others do it for them.

    In common law, parents have always been responsible actions of their children. If my 12 year old takes a sledgehammer to a neighbors car, I get sued for damages not the child. Likewise, truancy is really a crime of the parent.

    Saying that parents aren’t responsible for their children’s actions will only increase the power of the state. Since by definition a minor is person whom somebody else makes final decisions for, if the parent doesn’t make the decisions then that job falls to the State.

  • Guy Herbert

    Verity: I resent that slur on my lack of professional qualification of any kind. I just have a natural propensity for recalling information, particularly if it is about government and depressing or absurd.

    The Customs and Excise sent a threatening letter about the missing trader nonsense to everyone they suspect of being in any way involved with computers or telecoms. It’s a classic of bureaucratic [lack-of-]thought-process, containing as it does the oblique suggestion that you might want to ask each supplier in the supply chain of every component in any equipment you are handling to verify their VAT status for you. (I imagine Alaska has been helpfully set aside to store the necessary paperwork.)

  • Verity

    Guy – It’s got all numbered clauses and parenthesised letters indented. And I saw the word “joint” just before I blacked out.

  • Sigivald

    Think of the power this gives real delinquents over their parents!

    “Well, Mum, if you don’t give me X, I just won’t go to school. And you’ll go to jail! Fork it over, eh?”

  • Clark

    Above comments have a point about the parental responsibility to educate – but the author’s parade of horribles where he says: “to include such things as smoking in the vicinity of your children, allowing them to eat sweeties” has already come true – in Hillrah’s People’s Republic of New York it is illegal to smoke in a car if there are children in it, and smoking is a factor in child-custody decisions. Only trouble with getting the state to help with parental responsibilities is that soon while the kids still skip school, we can’t smoke in the Chevy….

  • Tim Sturm

    My answer to this type of question, i.e. one which involves drawing a line somewhere along a continuum to delineate crime/not a crime, is that I don’t necessarily know the right answer, but I do know how it should be solved.

    Common law.

    Shannon already pointed out that common law has something to say about this issue. And Brian is right, we should feel deeply uneasy when government replaces common law principles with politically motivated, non-objective, one-size-fits-all legislation.

  • Noah Yetter

    Since by definition a minor is person whom somebody else makes final decisions for,

    If you call a cow’s tail a “leg”, how many legs does it have?

    The fact that parents are responsible for a child’s actions in the eyes of the law does not make it so in reality. The objection to holding them so responsible is not legal but moral/ethical/sensical/whathaveyou. Toolkien’s comment seems the most apropos. If the child can’t be forced to comply, then clearly they are in control of their own actions and therefore ought to be held responsible for them.

    Of course, the revelation that the mother was “complicit” (there’s that language of crime creeping in again) in the majority of the girl’s truancy may make that whole line of argument moot. In that case, a different argument suffices just as well. If the parent chooses to allow their child to skip school, as many certainly do, and we grant any notion whatsoever of parental discretion in child-rearing, where is the crime? I don’t see the fundamental (viz. situational) difference between home-schooling a child and accompanying them on adventures in truancy. And if we don’t grant parental discretion, then we’re left with all children ultimately being the property of the State, with full decision-making authority over their lives lying with its agents.

    Again, we return to the gradual re-definition of “child abuse” to include those things the State doesn’t think appropriate. Just because the State defines “not ensuring your child gets an education” to be child abuse, doesn’t make it so.

    (BTW, the answer is “four”.)

  • Cydonia

    Shannon Love:

    “In common law, parents have always been responsible actions of their children. If my 12 year old takes a sledgehammer to a neighbors car, I get sued for damages not the child. Likewise, truancy is really a crime of the parent. ”

    This is a commonly held view. It is also wrong. There is no such principle of common law. See Hewitt v. Bonvin [1940] 1 KB. 188 (father not liable for negligent driving of son driving family car); Appendix B of the Kilbrandon Report which can be found here(Link).

    Cydonia

  • klu01dbt

    Sending a child to a state comprehensive counts as child abuse in my book.

  • Frank P

    Child truancy has been around at least since my childhood in the 1930s, probably since schools began. And neglectful parents have always been liable to prosecution, but usually action falls short of that. Perhaps someone can help me? Has truancy increased pro rata with the increase in single motherhood? This high profile case seems to indicate that persistent unnecessary absence is still a fairly uncommon occurrence, otherwise it would probably not have received the publicity it has. Using the word abuse instead of neglect devalues the word abuse in my opinion. It has much stronger connotations than is appropriate for failing to ensure that kids don’t bunk off from school. And any kid that has played hookey will tell you it isn’t necessarily the parents’ fault. On the contrary, great ingenuity is often employed by children to deceive both parents and teachers. Until teaching staff make the educational environment more innovative, interesting and amenable for our kids, they will occasionally find something more attractive to do when they should be at school. Banging up a junky Mum from time to time is not going to remedy that, but enforcement and prosecution must exact an increasing penalty for those who won’t desist, otherwise it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

  • Guy Herbert

    Aren’t children ferae naturae at Common Law?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Spare the rod, spoil the child. Evidently, this might apply to adults too.

    The parent should be punished, by not by sending her to jail. Use the most painful method of punishment: Through the pocket!

    Let’s say, a fine, or if she has no job and sponging off the state, a reduction in welfare payouts.

  • Verity

    Wobbly – “If she has no job….” Funnee!

    The state will already have determined how much she needs to live on. I don’t think it is within the power of magistrates or judges to reduce welfare payments. But even if they could, and they cut this woman’s payments back, she would simply “go down the Social” and apply for temporary supplementary benefits, which they would have to grant her, the state having already determined how much she needs … Therefore, there is no monetary punishment available.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Actually I think this mother was probably guilty of showing insufficient deference to some state creature or other in some quite-possibly-unrelated matter – it might been planning or something.

    Reason being that I know of loads of teenagers who simply stop going to school at about thirteen, or whenever they begin to find it a bit boring, and nothing ever happens to them; in fact usually the other kids at the school heave a sigh of relief and get on with their work. So, privately, do the teachers.

    The real crime here, I suspect, was maiestas. She’s a marked woman. We don’t know exactly who she upset, but they’re not leaving her alone so she must have made a proper job of it.

    “Pour encourager les autres”

  • Ken

    “Saying that parents aren’t responsible for their children’s actions will only increase the power of the state. Since by definition a minor is person whom somebody else makes final decisions for, if the parent doesn’t make the decisions then that job falls to the State. ”

    It doesn’t necessarily fall to the state. The state could always redefine “minor” to something more reasonable instead.

  • Neil Saunders

    Jailing mothers (and it’s always the mothers) for failing to send a 14 year old to school is ridiculous. In the 1980s I was in a similar situation, bullied at the local comprehensive. My mother was threatened with court action when I refused to go to school. While all the teachers’ organizations cheer truants’ parents imprisonment, why aren’t they made culpable for all the bullying they ignore?

    Mr Blair’s election manifesto is going to include a proposal to raise the school leaving age to 18. So expect to see 5ft1 Mums sent to jail because they couldn’t get their 6ft4 rugby playing sons to school.

  • Toolkien, one really wonders why truancy laws are needed in Milwaukee County – the same public school system in which a majority of graduates are functionally innumerate or illiterate – yet still graduate. At least there’s the potential for them to learn something vocational outside of school.

  • Verity

    Neil Saunders – It’s always the mums because the mums don’t know the whereabouts of the dads or even, very frequently, their names.

    This woman’s daughters have a history of truanting. They weren’t being bullied. They just preferred to hang out down the shopping centre, with the truanting boys. She has five illegitimate daughters and I would bet dollars to donuts that there were five separate fathers involved.

  • Neil Saunders

    Verity

    Yes, maybe the woman is “white trash”. But why this need to make education compulsory after 11? If a child can’t read, write and add up by then, then it is the teachers who are at fault.

    The teaching unions want education compulsory for as long as possible. Compulsory education for more years doesn’t raise the ability of pupils, it just fills up the available space. Those with the best education are those who regard it as a privilege, not a right. Which is why there are schools in Africa, where the pupils don’t have shoes and where they are educated better than in the marxist day care centres we call Comprehensives.

  • Caitlin Richards

    I’m a child myself. But why should parents have to pay for there child not going to school?…The kid should be responsible for getting up to there alarm clock and going. Now if the kids are age of 10 and younger i understand. But what about the parents that are getting jailed because of a 15 or 16 year old…because they now know how to drive and decide to skip school. or they decide to get out of it someway or another. WHY SHOULD PARENTS HAVE TO PAY FOR US?