The Case of Patrica Amos
On May 13th, 2002, an Englishwoman called Patricia Amos was sent to prison for sixty days because her two daughters, aged 13 and 15, played truant on about two days out of three. She was not allowed bail before her appeal, held on May 22nd, and no official arrangements were made for the care of her children. Their elder sister had to take them into her house without warning. No one seems to have asked why the girls were refusing to attend school: the family said it was because their grandmother, who lived with them, had recently died. I have seen no report that the girls were breaking the law in any way beyond simply avoiding school.
The sentence was welcomed by the Secretary of State for Education.
This is the reaction of the British Government to the fact that 50,000 children are missing school every day. Parents who do not make sure that their children attend school may now be sentenced to up to three months of imprisonment, and a fine of up to £2,500.
The official reason for this inappropriate and cruel legislation was given by the chief education officer for Oxford, where the girls live. He said: "We have a duty to see the young people of Oxfordshire receive the education to which they are entitled."
The real reason is that there has been a rise in reported juvenile crime, most of which takes place during school hours. Most of this is probably not committed by truants, but by the many thousands of children who are being quite legally excluded by schools because of their disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Truants and their parents, however, are an easier target.
In Britain children are obliged to go to school, whether they want to go or not, unless they behave extremely badly, when they are excluded from school, whether they want to go or not. The problem of school refusal is seldom mentioned.
It has long been considered a duty of parents to control the behaviour of their children. Centuries of evidence show that this is not always possible. The Government has nevertheless passed laws to make the impossible compulsory, and the imprisonment of Patricia Amos has been the result of this insane legislation.
Newspapers have reported some protest at the harshness of her sentence, but I have seen very little mention of what seem to me to be the main objections, which are these:
• The problem is not that the sentence is too harsh, but that Patricia Amos should not ever have been brought to court. Parents can guide their children's behaviour, but they cannot control it.
• Patricia Amos's daughters have a right to be heard.
• It has not been established that a conventional school is the right place for these girls.
• If the girls had been shop-lifting or committing other crime, there might have been some justification for arresting them, but there would still have been no justification for arresting their mother.
• Children attending school for only one day out of three will not be able to make any sense of their lessons, and will therefore have little reason for coming back. They will need special attention.
• If 50,000 children are missing school every day, there must be something wrong with the schools.
• The chief education officer suggests that children must be forced to accept the education they are entitled to. This makes education an imposition rather than an entitlement. Being entitled to education should not mean being obliged to accept whatever your school may consider appropriate, including in some cases humiliating discipline and irrelevant subject-matter.
It is not Patricia Amos who deserves punishment, but the legislators who have failed to create an educational system which means anything to her daughters or thousands of other children like them.