Absent without leave

Truancy has gone from a trickle to a flood of one million teenagers. Hannah Frankel looks at ways to stem the tide

It is difficult to believe, but there was a time - some 40 years ago - when it was hard to find a primary-age pupil bunking off school. Not so today.

The latest annual figures show 604,320 primary pupils play truant in England. But this pales into insignificance when compared with the number in secondary schools: despite the Government spending more than pound;1 billion on anti-truancy initiatives, almost one million teenagers skipped school in 2005 to 2006, with girls emerging as the worst offenders.

So why has such a massive investment failed to hit the mark? The Government points the finger at a hard core of 72,000 pupils (just 2.4 per cent of all secondary pupils) who account for more than half of all unauthorised absences. About 43,000 appear to miss school every day.

But without a further breakdown of the figures, it is hard to establish the root cause of truancy. At present, unauthorised absences - including extreme lateness, not turning up, or taking a holiday during term-time - are frequently grouped together with authorised absences, which could involve a pupil being off with a genuine illness.

As such, the statistics can confuse rather than clarify, argues Professor Ken Reid, a truancy expert and deputy principal of the Swansea Institute.

"No two schools are the same, so the reasons for truancy can be very different," he says. One school may have a problem with bullying (almost half of those who are bullied skip school, research shows), while another may have an issue with term-time holidays. "If there was an easy solution, we'd have introduced it years ago," says Professor Reid.

The Government, he adds, is over-simplifying a deeply complex situation. In its attempt to find the holy grail of attendance - such as imprisoning parents - ministers forget the need for a multi-disciplinary approach that involves everyone from family support services to parents and schools.

There are indications, however, that parental attitudes play a significant part. Around half of all pupils caught in truancy sweeps, for example, are with an adult.

But Ming Zhang, principal education welfare officer at Kingston Council, south-west London, insists poor parenting is not always to blame. "We often forget poor parenting is itself a symptom of other underlying social problems such as poverty," he says. "Many families have a long history of schooling problems that have existed for generations."

Ming's most recent study shows that on-the-spot fines for the parents of truants do not work. "Imposing a pound;100 fine on a parent who is already struggling financially is just going to make matters worse. Instead, I've found parenting contracts - where all parties come together and agree how they can support each other - to be a very powerful weapon. Attendance surgeries for certain parents can also be effective, and there are good transition projects for both Year 6 and Year 9 pupils."

Sue Dinsdale, a family liaison officer in Kent, has worked with hundreds of parents whose children truant. "We can explain to them their statutory obligations, refer them to local voluntary organisations or help them get involved in adult education or after-school activities," says Sue. "If you empower parents, then truancy issues will decrease."

But once they are in school, pupils must want to stay. At Birley Spa Primary School in Sheffield, pupils' motivation levels are checked twice daily so teachers can monitor how they feel.

"Our key purpose is that pupils, parents and teachers want to be here,"

says Geoff Mawson, head. "Pupils mark their mood out of 10 on the registration sheet. A low score would not go unnoticed and their learning mentor would have a word with them. The pupil will not be in a fit state to learn if they don't feel supported."

Having had 87 per cent attendance in 1999, the school hit its target of 95 per cent last year. And exam results have risen in conjunction: from 30-odd per cent of pupils achieving level 4 or above in English, maths and science, to 90 per cent, 89 per cent and 97 per cent last year.

It is partly down to the success of the school's "attendance tree". Pupils are given a leaf for good attendance, which they place on the painted 6ft tall tree. By the summer term, the once barren tree is dripping with leaves and a prize draw is held, with the winner receiving a bike. "It's an excellent visual reminder about the importance of attending," says Geoff.

"It was the children's idea to have some sort of incentive for attendance and it's worked brilliantly."

Co-operating closely with families is the cornerstone of good attendance at Dove House School in Basingstoke, Hampshire. In 1998, Ofsted said the 88 per cent attendance rate at the special school could be better. So far this academic year, there has not been a single unauthorised absence.

The school puts its impressive turnaround down to the dedication of Dave Reid, its home-school liaison manager. For the past two years, if one of Dove House's 120 pupils is absent, Dave will immediately phone home and, if necessary, bring the pupil into school himself.

"Parents can contact Dave seven days a week," says Colin House, head. "They can talk to him if they need debt counselling or if they are being evicted.

Any of these sorts of problems can contribute to their child's poor attendance. By creating an environment where parents and their children feel happy, welcome and well-supported, the pupils will come to school.

It's not rocket science."

Colin admits this hands-on approach is much easier in a smaller school like his. Kenton School in Newcastle has more than 2,000 pupils and it is an achievement to get an automated message to the truant's parents by midday.

"Three years ago, we asked our pupils what would lead to better attendance," says David Pearmain, the headteacher. "They said: 'more interesting lessons'. It's so obvious really."

Since then, the school has widened its curriculum to include 14 largely vocational courses, including engineering and retail studies. "It's had a big impact on key stage 4 pupils in particular," says David. "At that age they often lose sight of what school is doing for them, but the new courses have cured that. Remedial measures such as our electronic attendance system are important, but ultimately the pupils must want to come to school."

The imperfect national curriculum is often cited as a major turn-off for some truanting pupils, with vocational subjects being heralded as the cure.

"A personal, varied, and possibly vocational curriculum can help tackle truancy," says Sir Alan Steer, head of Seven Kings High School in Ilford, Essex, and also the head of the Government's inquiry into behavioural problems in schools.

"There still has to be a strong emphasis on excellent teaching and learning. A brilliant teacher can enthuse a pupil regardless of the topic, while a poorer teacher can take an 'interesting' vocational subject and make it deadly boring."

Like the other experts The TES Magazine has spoken to, he does not pretend there are any easy answers. "We need a range of approaches depending on the context of the school," he says.

"However, attendance must have a high profile. We have a member of the senior management team, including myself, at the gates every morning without fail, either welcoming pupils or chasing those that are late. I also expect teachers to be punctual. It makes a statement that it really does matter."

Typical truants

Girls are more likely to be absent than boys.

Year 11 pupils are four times more likely to be absent than children in Year 7.

Pupils with English as their second language are less likely to truant than those with English as their mother tongue.

White pupils are above the national average in terms of absence, while Asian, black and Chinese pupils are below the national average.

Pupils on free school meals are almost three times more likely to be absent than other pupils.

Source: DfES

Paying the price

Parents of persistent truants can face a fine of up to pound;2,500, a jail sentence of up to three months or a community sentence.

Between September 2004 and September 2006, more than 15,600 parents faced fines, of which almost half were not paid.

It is estimated about 7,500 parents in England are taken to court each year over their child's truancy, but only a handful receive custodial sentences.

George McHugh, head of Parklands High School in Manchester, was suspended earlier this month after allegations that attendance figures were faked. An investig-ation will take place.

Across the UK

Number of half days missed in 2005 to 2006:

8.2 per cent in English secondary schools.

9.9 per cent in Welsh secondary schools.

9.6 per cent in Scottish secondary schools.

7.8 per cent in Northern Ireland's secondary schools.

A mother's viewpoint

Jennifer Hawley, a single mother of six from Walsall, has struggled to ensure her three eldest children attend school regularly.

However, the children responded better when they had more option s available to them.

Gavin, now 20, stopped truanting when he went to college at 16 and trained as a mechanic, while Kirsty, 15, now enjoys a range of academic and vocational subjects.

"At Kirsty's last school, it was clear the teachers didn't like her and she didn't like them. Once it gets like that, there's no chance you'll get them in. Now the teachers are on her side, she's lost her attitude," Jennifer says.

For her, the support of education welfare officers and family liaison officers has been invaluable.

"When we all worked together, it worked," she says. "The atmosphere of the school is so important as well. Some of the teachers can be very disapproving and talk down to you. If you don't feel comfortable in school, your child won't either." How to cut absenteeism

Make attendance a priority and clearly outline the consequences of missing school.

Adopt an evidence-based approach to find out key reasons for absence and the most effective way to tackle it.

Ensure the school is an environment where parents, teachers and pupils all feel welcome and thoroughly supported.

Be realistic and ask for help from other agencies as soon as possible.

Sound school policies may not be enough if a family needs intensive support or counselling.

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