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No prosecutions over students skipping school

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No South Australian parents have been prosecuted for school truancy in nearly four years, despite harsher penalties and warnings to other families following two successful legal cases in 2017.

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School truancy

New laws came into force in July last year – lifting the maximum fine for chronic absenteeism from $500 to $5000 – but they are yet to be used.

Education Minister John Gardner said the increased fines were “a last resort” but the Opposition has accused the Minister of “failing to deliver… on the promise he made to crack down on chronic absenteeism”.

In early 2017, the former Labor Government took two families to court for their children failing to attend school.

A 45-year-old man pleaded guilty to 10 offences over his son’s absenteeism and was fined $2,000, while a 57-year-old woman was convicted a week earlier of the same offence.

At the time, the Government said they were the first convictions in more than two decades.

Both major parties promised to toughen penalties for chronic absenteeism before the last election, resulting in a tenfold increase to the maximum fine, which Gardner described at the time as a necessary “stick” to make sure families send their children to school.

The Education Department told InDaily there had been no other prosecutions since the 2017 cases.

“However, the Department for Education is continuing to assess cases which may have a reasonable prospect of conviction and where it is in the best interest of the child to prosecute,” a spokesperson said.

“We are mindful that COVID-19 has created an additional layer of complexity for families and we are taking that into account when evaluating cases.”

Opposition education spokesman Blair Boyer said it was “gobsmacking” that the Government hadn’t used the new laws to issue heftier fines to parents.

“This is yet another example of the Marshall Liberal Government talking a big game before the election but failing to deliver in Government,” he said.

“In a recent letter to the Education Minister the State’s Commissioner for Children and Young People found that disengagement from school increased between primary and high school.

“Given that South Australia is about to embark on the transition of year seven from primary to high school, it’s vital that John Gardner makes good on the promise he made to crack down on chronic absenteeism.”

Gardner said “increased fines for truancy have always been described as a last resort”.

“They are designed to put pressure on families who refuse to cooperate with the school and the department to get their kids back to school,” he said.

Gardner said the most significant new reform was the introduction of family conferencing, “where families of truant students are encouraged to cooperate with authorities and service providers who can help them improve their child’s attendance”.

“This new family conference model has commenced and the increased fines now available in the Act are a compelling incentive that helps ensure cooperation from those families who might otherwise have been reluctant to participate,” he said.

“This Government is committed to providing all South Australian children with a world-class education, and maximising student attendance is a big part of that.”

Gardner said Labor’s policy before the election was “to introduce revenue-raising speeding ticket style expiation notices to parents – of up to $750 in the original Education reform bill they introduced into the Parliament”.

“Such speeding fine style notices would have been easy for schools to distribute and would undoubtedly have undermined the effective engagement that we are seeking to achieve in getting kids back to school,” he said.

Australian Education Union state president Lara Golding said “while fines make for nice headlines for politicians, financial penalties for parents are rarely the answer to the complex social, health and economic issues relating to low attendance”.

“Teachers, leaders and families are desperate for additional funding to support our schools and preschools,” she said.

Golding said to properly address absenteeism and provide “a world-class education”, all political parties must commit to “significantly increasing support for students in schools and preschools including psychologists, in-class support, behaviour coaches and mental health services”.

The Education Department spokesperson said prosecutions would be pursued “when all other avenues have been exhausted and fair warnings have been provided”.

The spokesperson said the department had engaged 11 extra social workers to work with schools and families to support attendance.

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

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

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