BOLTON parents who persistently fail to send their children to school could end up behind bars under a new get-tough court policy.

New powers given to Bolton magistrates could see mums and dads of school truants jailed for up to three months or fined £2,500.

Last year Bolton education chiefs prosecuted 50 parents for failing to send their children to school. In one case an £800 fine was imposed on one family for a number of offences.

And while experts believe jail terms will only be imposed in extreme cases they believe it will combat a further problem of parents failing to turn up at court.

Magistrates now have the power to issue warrants for the arrest of parents who do not attend court hearings. The previous maximum penalty was a fine of £1,000.

Ian Price, Bolton LEA's principal education social worker said the new policy will encourage parents of non-attenders take a more "responsible attitude" to their children's education.

"One of the biggest bones of contention we have had over the years is that when we prosecute parents they simply do not turn up at court," he said. "In many instances they do not see it as terribly serious and I think the new powers are aimed at those parents who simply do not care about their child's education."

Of the non attendance cases which led to court proceedings in Bolton Mr Price said that as little as a quarter of parents involved turned up for court. "Turning up at court gives the parent the chance to explain the circumstances behind their child not going to school," he said. "Magistrates take a dim view of people not turning up for court. In many cases the hearing would have to be adjourned in the first instance and then dealt with in the parents' absence on the second occasion."

Now, because the maximum penalty includes a possible jail term the courts are allowed to issue a warrant demanding a parent's attendance at court. "I think this is also about getting people to respect the legal process which in turn may make them think more about their child's education which can only be a good thing," said Mr Price.

The LEA have taken a pro-active stance on school attendance and in recent months have undertaken a number of successful "truancy sweeps" in the town.

Mr Price pledged that these would continue this year.

The courts have a range of powers for dealing with non-attendance including imposing school attendance orders, parenting orders and education supervision orders.

"Non-attendance at school is a crime like any other and it is something we take very seriously indeed," he said. "We always try to resolve the problem before it gets to court but we will always prosecute where we deem it necessary."

He added: "We would prefer to work with parents and they are offered many opportunities to discuss any problems they have with us and work towards a resolution before we even consider court proceedings. This can take weeks, even months but in some cases all our offers to help are ignored which is why this new legislation must be welcomed."