Oh God, what to do if your kids truant? It’s something that every mum has to deal with at some point, whether it’s your kid bunking off for an afternoon with their mates or persistently, week after week in that way that makes your heart sink.
Last week I talked to Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour tsar for the Sunday Times – who has a big idea for stopping truanting. According to Taylor the way to stop kids skipping school is to dock child benefit from parents who refuse to pay the £50 fixed-penalty fine levied when their children repeatedly bunk off. It’s a controversial plan, outlined by Taylor in a report published last week. So far the government hasn’t decided whether to follow the advice.
To be fair Taylor understands misbehaving youngsters.
As the government’s behaviour czar, trying to tackle some of the problems that make children misbehave in class, Taylor can draw on six years’ experience at a special school in northwest London.
While headmaster at the Willows in Hillingdon, which takes in some of the most difficult children in the area, Taylor, 46, dealt with hundreds of angry, upset pupils. He has been spat at and punched, threatened with a potato peeler and had to have a hepatitis B jab because of “the biters”. His finger is still bent after he dislocated it trying to stop a boy jumping from a window. T
His report on truancy is a mix of carrot and stick. On his child benefit proposal he insists: sometimes “a line has to be drawn in the sand”.
“Fifty to sixty per cent of fines, when they get given, don’t get paid. So the current system doesn’t have any teeth,” he says. “When cases get to court, many judges let parents off with a conditional discharge — only half end up with a sentence more severe than the original fine.
“You have to have a moment where you say, ‘Actually, this isn’t good enough’, because denying your child an education is a serious thing to do.”
He also advocates tackling the problem at primary school, where he suggests publishing the attendance rates of three and four-year-olds. Even at this age, says Taylor, children at risk are identifiable.
While researching his report, he came across Jubilee school in Sandwell, West Midlands, where Heidi Connor, the head teacher, “sees children who start school not even knowing their own name”. Such pupils often have patchy nursery attendance, yet they are the ones most in need of regular schooling to bridge the gap already opening between them and their peers.
He commends heads such as Connor, “an absolute star”, for knocking on parents’ doors to ask why their children are not at school, despite risking “a very nasty reaction”. When things get heated, says Taylor approvingly, she “will call the police if she has to”.
With two reports behind him in his role as behaviour czar — the first looked at ways of improving education for children expelled from school — what you sense from Taylor is sympathy for those too often dismissed as problem children.
“The children at the Willows are incredibly anxious,” he says warmly. “They unfortunately deal with their anxiety by throwing a chair across the room and telling me to ‘f*** off’ but underneath it all, they are just anxious.”
Why is this Old Etonian drawn to help misbehaving children? Might it be a reaction to his own adolescence?
“I was a bit of a naughty boy,” he admits. “The behaviour wasn’t that different, but the reasons for it were. I used to get up to teenage stuff, not doing work that was supposed to be done and so on.”
Asked for his A-level results, he responds: “I think I got Cs, a D, I can’t remember. But back then,” he jokes, “A-levels were very difficult.”