Absence minders help cut truancy

David Budge

Sixth-formers are being used as "minders" to accompany potential truants between lessons. Others are "buddies" to younger, disaffected children or staffing "listening posts" which they can contact for help. And some senior pupils even provide tutorial support for troubled children who have fallen behind with work.

The developing role that sixth-formers are playing in the fight against truancy and disaffection is spelled out in a new report from the National Foundation for Educational Research. The report describes some of the latest methods of improving attendance and behaviour that have attracted Government cash and examines the problems that schools are still having to combat.

It concludes that an urgent review of the national curriculum may have to be set up if the needs of lower-achieving 14 to 16-year-olds are to be met. The Government should also consider mounting a publicity campaign to cut parentally condoned absence and should weigh up whether it would be cost-effective to provide more pastoral work in secondary schools, the report says.

The researchers, who are taking part in a continuing two-year project, questioned senior managers, heads of year and form tutors in 30 schools and special units in 14 local education authorities. Senior LEA staff and education welfare officers were also interviewed.

Some of the schools have invited members of the public to telephone hotlines if they suspect that a child is truanting or have asked pupils to sign codes of conduct. Several of them have also introduced sophisticated computerised surveillance systems.

But others have adopted a softer approach, by making the curriculum more relevant to lower-achieving 14 to 16-year-olds, offering rewards for punctuality and good attendance, liaising with parents, enlisting the help of theatre-in-education groups, or trying to boost pupils' self-esteem by sending "praise postcards" to their homes. Most of the schools, however, adopted more than one strategy because they realise that disaffection and truancy ("fight" or "flight", as the problem has been described) have many different roots.

Many of the schools reported that parentally-condoned absence was a major problem. One deputy head said: "Almost anything takes priority to school - haircuts and holidays, for example."

And others said that sometimes the whole community did not value anything that was part of their neighbourhood, including the education on offer there.

Three to Remember by Kay Kinder, John Harland, Anne Wilkin and Alison Wakefield, Pounds 3.50 inc p.p (payable to NFER), from Dissemination Unit, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, Berkshire SL1 2DQ.

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