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Tenfold increase in fines for school truancy

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Families and carers of chronically truant school students could face fines of up to $5000 – ten times the previous penalty – after the State Government passed new legislation handing out tougher penalties for school absences.

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The regulatory change was part of the Education and Children’s Services Act 2019, which began on July 1 and replaced the Education Act 1972 and Children’s Services Act 1985.

It is one in a raft of new measures to take effect in term three, which will cover preschool, primary and secondary state schools.

Other changes include an increase in fines against people who use threatening, abusive or insulting language or behave in an offensive or threatening manner to school staff, and the power to move children to a different school in response to bullying or serious assault.

Education Minister John Gardner told InDaily the ten-fold increase for parents and carers who allowed a child to be absent from school, or didn’t enrol a child in school or an approved learning program was designed to act as an incentive for families and carers to engage in a new “family conferencing” system.

He said the conferencing method would be used to engage a range of relevant services to help address the root cause of why a child was not attending school.

“To make the family conferencing regime work effectively, we need a stick to ensure that those families who haven’t been engaging with the school do everything that they can to support their child’s attendance and are given a very good reason to engage with the family conference – and that increased fine enables us to do so,” Gardner said.

“There’s always been a financial penalty in the legislation for non-attendance at school, but it was a very low penalty, certainly by comparison with other jurisdictions, and it was hard to enforce.”

Data from the state Department of Education showed only three fines regarding truancy had been successfully prosecuted in the past decade, with a total of nine fines given since 1984.

Gardner said previous governments had tried to take more families and carers to court, without success.

“What tended to happen was they had to find an accumulation of offences – so it might be having people prosecuted for multiple breaches of the Act – which cumulatively would make it a penalty worth taking to court,” Gardner said.

He said if a child was “chronically truant” families and carers would be need to engage in the family group conferencing system or risk being fined.

“We’re not talking about children who are sick, we’re not talking about children who are unwell – even for an extended period of time – we’re not talking about children who might have an occasional issue,” Gardner said.

“We’re talking about where there is at least five days in a row, or 10 days in a term, and probably we’re talking about a more regular basis than that.

“If a family is working hard to do what they can to get their child to go to school and helping us to get to the cause of why they’re not, then there’s no reason why people should feel anxiety about this greater fine.

“However, they should be aware of them if they think attending school is an option for their child – because it’s not an option. It’s something that’s absolutely important for their child’s wellbeing.”

The legislation was initially floated by Labor Education Minister Susan Close and was an election promise for both major parties ahead of the March 2018 election.

It was passed in August 2019 following a slight drop in the state’s school attendance between 2012 and 2019.

According to data from the Department of Education, the percentage of students between reception and year 12 who attended school for nine out every 10 days in semester one over the seven years decreased 1.1 per cent to 89.64 per cent.

Australian Education Union SA president Lara Golding is concerned the increased fines would disproportionately affect families from low socio-economic backgrounds.

She said greater support services were needed within the education system.

“There is a multitude of reasons why truancy occurs including mental health and family circumstance,” she said.

“We need additional counsellors and truancy officers and a multi-agency approach to support students and families with attendance.”

Close conceded there was a risk the fines would disproportionately affect families from low socio-economic backgrounds, but she hoped the family conferencing mechanism would prevent truancy before it reached court.

“The sad truth is disadvantaged families tend to be dealing with more complex issues that often will lead to lower attendance rates,” she said.

“It might be mental illness, it might be drug or alcohol abuse, it might be simply poverty, the kids may need to go and work to bring money into the family, it may that there’s domestic violence, it may be that the parents have separated and that’s causing problems between who’s taking who to school.

“So, there are usually complex reasons that family conference will be really good. It will require the family to come and sit down and work through what’s going on.”

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