Compulsory school attendance was introduced in Australia during the Victorian era in the later-nineteenth century. The Victorians were the first to recognise that the state had a role to play in promoting child welfare by requiring parents to ensure that their children received a minimum level of schooling. This was part of a broader movement to encourage respectable standards of behaviour by people of all classes.
The effort to bring about social improvement had largely succeeded by the early-twentieth century. Working class communities had embraced ‘middle class’ notions of respectability (work, marriage, sobriety, and thrift) that had proven conducive to the formation of functional families. A marker of respectability was the ability of parents to send clean, well-fed, and properly dressed children to school each day. A marker of un-respectability was enduring the shame and stigma of having one’s children rounded up by the truancy officer.
For a hundred years, society traded on the legacy of the Victorians, but things began to change in the aftermath of the social revolution of the 1960s.
The Sixties ethos of personal liberation undercut the Victorian behavioural code, which was fashionably dismissed as so much ‘bourgeois’ uptightness. Complacency also set in. Official enforcement of respectable behaviour seemed unnecessary. Rarely-needed truancy laws appeared ‘harsh’ and anachronistic.
In the modern era of free-flowing welfare, however, these attitudes have become socially disastrous.
Social norms have collapsed in a significant underclass of welfare-dependent and dysfunctional families, and the failure to regularly send children to school symbolises the breakdown of behavioural standards.
The response to rising levels of chronic truancy has been feeble. Woolly-minded sociologists have offered lame excuses about ‘poverty’, and the self-serving welfare industry has demanded higher government funding for ‘more support services’ to help ‘struggling’ parents. Meanwhile, educational faddists have prattled on about making school ‘fun’ so kids are ‘engaged.’ Too little attention has been paid to the best interests of children denied an education due to parental neglect.
Our thinking about child welfare now appears to be slowly coming full circle.
The Victorian Government has just announced plans to make it easier to fine parents whose children miss more than five school days a year without a valid excuse. This follows embarrassing revelations earlier this year that not one fine had been issued for truancy under new laws introduced in 2006.
The renewed, if much belated, attempt to revive the specter of the truancy officer and crack down on absenteeism is welcome. However, the need to punish parents who don't send children to school highlights the truly appalling amount of ground we have lost over the last 40 years.Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies at www.cis.org.au.