‘If Michael Gove thinks that the solution to encourage children back to school is to impoverish them, then he is living in a different century.’
The levelling up secretary caused an outcry this week by suggesting that parents of children who miss school could have their benefit payments stopped.
The comments were made during a Q&A session on the future of conservatism with the Conservative think-tank, Onward.
The idea to penalise parents with benefit sanctions was originally considered by the coalition government under David Cameron when Michael Gove was education secretary. A government report Gove commissioned following the riots of 2011 said that recouping fines for absenteeism through child benefit “will strengthen and simplify the system.”
The move was however blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
Under the current system, parents whose children play truant in England can face fines of £60. This rises to £120 if the fine is not paid within 21 days. The fines are normally issued by local councils.
But if the levelling up minister has he way, the benefits cut policy could be reconsidered as part of a drive to restore an “ethic of responsibility.”
“We need to – particularly after Covid – get back to an absolute rigorous focus on school attendance, on supporting children to be in school,” Gove said.
“It is often the case that it is truanting or persistent absenteeism that leads to involvement in anti-social behaviour.
“So, one of the ideas that we floated in the coalition years, which the Liberal Democrats rejected, is the idea that if children are persistently absent then child benefit should be stopped,” the cabinet minister continued.
The comments sparked an immediate backlash. Paul Whiteman, generation secretary of the NAHT school leavers’ union, said sanctioning benefits was not the answer to improving school attendance.
“Not only is this wrong, it is also likely to be counter-productive. It is very hard to see how consigning children to poverty and starvation will improve their school attendance,” he said.
“School staff are already deeply concerned by how many children are living in poverty and the impact that has on their academic performance and wellbeing.
“Persistent absence can only be successfully tackled by offering help, not punishment.”
Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson shared similar disproval, saying: “If Michael Gove thinks that the solution to encourage children back to school is to impoverish them, then he is living in a different century”.
Many turned to Twitter to vent exasperation at Gove’s comments.
“School leaders find this a bad idea. Why not listen to them? Perhaps – who knows – listening to the experts might help you not constantly come up with populist cruel policies that don’t work,” someone posted.
“What about cutting the salaries of MPs like Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries who fail to turn up and do their jobs? another asked.
Others pointed to how such a policy would impact children with mental heath conditions and learning difficulties, who have been “ignored by the system.”
The cruelness of fuelling low-income families into greater poverty by purging benefits was also raised.
“It takes a special kind of sadist to punish the poor for being poor by making them poorer,” someone wrote.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward
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