Alternatives to truancy

Teaching professionals would like more curriculum options to entice absentee pupils, writes Ken Reid

More vocational and alternative curriculum options should be made available to pupils likely to truant, according to a survey of school professionals'

views on improving attendance.

Staff from form tutors to headteachers feel some parents with negative attitudes are fuelling non-attendance. But they are divided over how truants should be reintegrated into school life - and who should do it.

These are the key findings from a detailed postal questionnaire completed by 479 heads, deputy heads, middle managers and form tutors throughout England and Wales.

The questionnaire examined respondents' views on the best ways to manage pupil attendance, based upon their personal experiences. The findings are the first to focus on asking key professionals for their views on this issue.

The responses were obtained from a wide cross-section of schools, with more than a quarter of respondents working in below-average attendance schools (with rates of less than 90 per cent).

Most of the respondents - ranging from 53 per cent of deputies to 77 per cent of form tutors - said they had received very little or no training on managing pupil attendance at any point in their careers.

A third or more of heads and deputies considered that they had received a reasonable amount of professional development on this issue, compared to only 15 per cent of form tutors.

Despite this, heads, deputies, middle managers and form tutors agreed that the best way to improve pupils' attendance was to establish more and better alternative and vocational curriculum schemes. No other suggested improvement received either substantial or universal support.

The findings also indicate that heads are particularly concerned about court outcomes in attendance cases. There was little support, however, from any of the four groups for jailing more parents in attendance cases.

Heads believed that parents should receive higher and more significant fines following court intervention, and be made to pay them in full. A third of heads also thought wider use should be made of both attendance and parenting orders.

There was also a clear consensus about the main causes of attendance problems. The two most significant reasons given were parents taking pupils on holiday during term time, and parents condoning children's absence.

The next most serious categories related to factors such as the culture and history of the catchment area, low self-esteem of pupils, specific lesson absences, post-registration truancy, and the lack of an alternativevocational curriculum.

If the respondents' scores for post-registration truancy and specific lesson absences were combined, this issue rose to second place. Two-thirds of middle managers and form tutors considered their schools struggled with these two issues.

Despite their concerns, most respondents believed staff should do everything possible to help absentees and truants readjust to school.

However, more than a quarter of form tutors and a fifth of middle managers thought too much time was spent on helping such pupils.

According to most respondents, reintegration strategies and personal guidance should mainly be provided by school-based staff or education welfare officers. Heads, deputies and middle managers supported this view.

But 45 per cent of form tutors said help should only be given by outside specialist agencies.

Similarly, only one in five form tutors thought that pupils who miss school should be given extra classes or help to catch up with their work during school time. But most heads and deputies said that non-attenders should be provided with this facility.

There was little agreement about which professional was best placed to help absentees and truants reintegrate back into school life. Heads' top three responses referred to classroom assistants, education welfare officers or learning mentors, while deputies identified education welfare officers, themselves, or heads of year.

Middle managers believed form tutors were best placed to help truants, but almost half of form tutors said welfare officers or home-school liaison officers should do the job.

The findings suggest that all ranks of teaching professionals are keen for schools to be given more vocational or alternative curriculum places to help pupils like truants and absentees. They also consider that negative parental attitudes towards schools among certain types of parents are a prime factor in non-attendance.

It appears that at present schools have a variety of approaches towards managing absenteeism. But few staff consider that existing strategies work effectively with either truants or other types of absentees, and most of these mechanisms are often introduced too late in the process.

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal at Swansea institute of higher education and author of Truancy: Short and Long-Term Solutions

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