Threatening impoverished families doesn't work, their kids still won't go to school

August 10, 2016

Photo: Márton Magocsi
Photo: Márton Magocsi

Translation of Illés Szurovecz’s article “Hiába fenyítik a szegényeket, attól még nem járnak többen iskolába” appearing in online daily on August 5, 2016.

Families risk losing social benefits if their kids do not show up to school, but more and more students are not showing up in class. The statistics for older students have only gotten better because minors over the age of 16 are no longer legally required to be in school. In many families, kids go to work with their parents instead of being in school. Some schools would rather kick these problematic students out.

In 2010, the government adopted legislation which stripped families of certain social benefits if their child had more than 50 unexcused absences. The law went on to order that the child be taken into protective custody. Authors of this legislation hoped these measures would help regulate the families, both parents and students, responsible for the high number of unexcused absences.

At first glance, one would assume the measures are working. Since 2011, the number of students against whom the sanctions [are directed] has dropped from 29,000 to under 13,000, but, according to figures obtained by Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet from the Ministry of Human Resources (EMMI), the situation in elementary schools is far from good. Over the course of the 2012/2013 school year, 5,165 were affected by the sanctions; in the 2013/2014 school year, that number increased to 5,659; by 2014/2015, that number increased again to 5,920. The situation was especially pronounced in the case of sixth and seventh grade students.

The situation has certainly improved in high schools, but one expert tells Abcúg that this is primarily because the age limit for mandatory school attendance had dropped from 18 years to 16 years. Problematic students simply stopped going to school.

In 2012, the government made the rules more stringent. Until then, social benefits suspended due to their children’s unexcused absences were placed in a separate account that would become available to the family once their child returned to school. Since then, social benefits suspended while the child was out of school are unrecoverable. Making matters worse, parents are charged a misdemeanor fine if their children have more than 30 unexcused absences. Parents are even denied participation in Hungary’s public employment scheme (which even prevents them from qualifying for additional support).

Since January, these new measures now also apply to the families of kindergartners: 11 unexcused absences constitute a misdemeanor, and more than 20 unexcused absences will result in the loss of a family’s social benefits. According to Magyar Nemzet, every month there is an increase in the number of families whose social benefits are stripped because of unexcused kindergarten absences. In January, there were 30 such cases. By May, this number increased to 113.

These fines are primarily dished out in Borsod, Szabolcs and Hajdú-Bihar counties, and largely affect families already living in poverty, where any cut in social benefits means a significant strain on family finances. But why is it then that the sanctions do not act as a deterrent?

I am a public employment scheme worker, and you will be one too

“For us, we see there are two reasons why students accumulate fifty unexcused absences. The first reason is due to the fact that the student gets caught up with the wrong crowd, and they even start doing drugs — this can happen with any family. The second reason is more closely related to the student’s family living in poverty. We see that the second reason causes the most cases,” a social worker from a school in Pécs told Abcúg. The social worker wished to remain anonymous.

“Students aged 13-14 years old are often taken to work with their parents to collect nuts, poppy seeds, chestnuts. In these cases, we try to help the parents weigh these costs: what they earn by taking their children to work is lost when their family social benefit is suspended. There are times when the parents take this advice and the student does not have a single unexcused absence after the 49th. But there are times when this does not work,” the social worker told Abcúg.

One children’s welfare services manager in Szabolcs county says that many children stay home to take care of their younger siblings while their parents are out working as part of the public employment scheme. In these cases, it is much more important to keep the family together than to be in school. There are also cases where children become so accustomed to being at home that it becomes impossible for them to reintegrate back into the routine of being at school.

“The problem is especially bad during autumn, not just because of the season for picking nuts, but also because it is much more difficult to get the students into school, especially for families who have no work-related income. It doesn’t matter that textbooks are free, physical education clothing, shoes, notebooks, pencils, etc., are too difficult to obtain,” says the social worker from Pécs. “It is hard to bring them back from summer vacation.”

Regulations state that schools are required to notify parents of their child’s first unexcused absence. The tenth and thirtieth unexcused absence require visits by an official from the national government’s local office and child welfare services, respectively. In these cases, a family social worker must figure out how the family operates and what the reason is for the child’s unexcused absences.

Imre Takács, president of the National Association of Hungarian Family Assistance and Child Welfare Services, says the social workers often discover that families living in poverty do not emphasize the importance of education for their children, and, as a result, are simply unable to motivate their kids to go to school.

“I’m a public employment scheme worker, and you will be, too,” is how Takács explained the perception.

Schools would much rather just get rid of the kids

According to Takács, people are often quick to pin blame on parents but it is important to note that schools are just as accountable. In many cases, the schools are more preoccupied trying to rid themselves of problematic students.

Aside from Takács, the Szabolcs county child welfare services manager also shares this view, and said that teachers often ask parents to register their children as being in the “homeschooled” status. This way, the parents will continue to receive the family social benefits and the school no longer has to deal with problematic students. The problem with this, of course, is that it is the student who pays the ultimate price because they all but cement their own falling-behind.

“We have huge battles with school principals,” said one source in Szabolcs county wishing to remain anonymous. “From the teacher’s point of view, it is always the parent and student who is at fault. We never hear that the class teacher could have done something differently. They do not act as partners but instead choose to pass the problem along.”

Takács agrees that some teachers have a poor approach to dealing with problematic children.

“It happens that I will ask a teacher to tell me at least one positive characteristic of the student but the teacher says nothing. But we all know that it is precisely the positive characteristic of a student that the teacher should build on and develop. In such cases, the teacher has no idea how to work with such children because no one ever taught them how to,” Takács says.

According to Takács, instead of dishing out punishments, teachers should be much more preoccupied with discovering what talents the student has and how to help the student achieve a sense of accomplishment with that talent. Instead, Takács says, teachers are quick to address the problem by telling the student “You will be just like your father”. This response is of no surprise because oftentimes the teachers themselves are completely burned out and do not have adequate assistance in the classroom.

“Children brought up in poverty are often hypersensitive,” Takács says. “All that is needed for them to become aggressive is a dirty look or a few mean words. That is why we are eager to involve them in various group activities, sports, arts and crafts — anything that can help them earn some praise. We want them to believe that it makes sense for them to learn.”

One Szabolcs county child welfare service tries to offer psychological support through the involvement of guests who themselves came from impoverished families but still managed to graduate from high school or college.

“It works on occassion but very rarely,” said the child welfare service manager.

Furthermore, schools oftentimes fail to notify the child welfare services center soon enough. “It has happened that the child welfare employee at the school failed to review the attendance sheets and as a result was completely ignorant to the number of absences. It has also happened that the teacher does not know, despite it being their responsibility to know.”

Oftentimes parents and schools are both responsible for children not being in the classroom. Families create an environment where the child is forced to stay home and schools simply do not want to deal with the problem.

Takács says that impoverished families often have less ability to represent their own interests as opposed to better-off families.

“It is possible for a better-off family to obtain a doctor’s note if they want to take their child skiing, but poorer families often cannot take their children to the doctor even when the situation warrants it,” Takács says.

In Szabolcs county, more needs to be done to convince doctors not to issue absence excuses for every small issue.

The exact opposite needs to be done

“I do not understand why we think that if we punish those who are already in a bad position that it will help,” says József Balázs Fejes, a researcher at the Szeged University Institute for Pedagogy.

Fejes also serves as a director for the Motiváció Műhely (“Motivation Workshop”), an educational program for disenfranchised students.

“Despite the constant threats, those living in poverty are more focused on just surviving from one day to the next. They do not plan days or weeks in advance. They don’t have even energy for that. This is precisely why these types of sanctions do not work,” Fejes says.

“Many say that it is enough to simply talk to the student who is often absent, but this problem is really a pinnacle problem of the education system. The students who are most likely to drop out are those who have the most difficulty reading. For them, going to school every day is a nonsensical, demotivating battle. The education system failed to teach them to read and it is understandable that they no longer want to go to school. This is not something that should be pinned on the parents,” Fejes says.

According to Fejes, the exact opposite style of thinking needs to be used. “In South America and Mexico, families living in poverty receive additional social benefits if their children are good students. Furthermore, this is tied together with random testing that shows the state will be much better off because the student is less likely to be sick.”

This does not mean that sanctions have absolutely no power to act as a deterrent because there are children who deliberately stop missing class after their 49th unexcused absence. There are also parents who consciously send their children to school out of fear of the sanctions. But it is an entirely different question when one asks whether it is effective to forcefully send a child to school even though the child and teacher will dislike each other even more.

Takács says these types of sanctions only make sense in individual cases when it is clear that parents and teachers are working together, the family receives all the help it needs, but still cannot reach their goal.

“The problem is that the current regulation does not take into account why the student is missing class, it simply applies this rule to everyone,” Takács says.

The social worker from the school in Pécs says that even if the current regulations stay in place, something additional must be added to the system. “Intensive family assistance and more financial assistance is needed. Ever since they suspended the social benefits and made the regulations more stringent, the situation has become much more difficult for the families.”