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Attending to truancy

In Liverpool, they call it sagging; in Wigan, it'swagging.

Whatever the local slang, there is now money available for schools to tackle the problem. Caroline Haydon reports

Dave Black reflects on why he spends so much time making sure his pupils don't miss school. "If you don't get them through the door, you can't educate them," he says. Obvious, maybe, but for schools in the toughest and most deprived areas, getting pupils through the school door is one of the biggest challenges.

Dagenham Priory, a specialist arts college is a mile down the road from the Ford factory which is synonymous with this part of the Thames corridor in Essex. But the jobs have been gone - the plant now only makes engines - and the school now scores high on indicators such as free school meals and special needs. It became a specialist school two years ago.

Changing attitudes towards attendance has been part of its approach, cracking down on unauthorised shopping trips and family holidays during term time. Dave Black, an assistant head, spells out the challenge:"If we can just get pupils here, the rest is up to us. But if we can't up attendance levels, we can't improve results."

When Dagenham Priory picked up funds from the Government's behaviour improvement programme last year, it decided to concentrate on attendance.

Before the the scheme kicked in, the school was only allowed 25 hours a week of help from an attendance officer, cut recently to 17. The extra money buys another 28 hours, bringing the total to 45.

The extra personnel made an impact. Although national truancy figures are hard to shift, with figures for unauthorised absences falling by a mere 0.01 of a percentage point last year, Dagenham shows that there are individual success stories. It beat its target of 86 per cent attendance in 2002, and has upped that to nearly 91 per cent this year (for both authorised and unauthorised absences). There is still room for improvement.

Eventually the school would like to see 94 per cent of the pupils in class all of the time.

Staff believe it it important to take the message about attendance outside the school gates. "You have to be rigorous. If there is an absence in the morning, you have to do a sweep, go round to the house", says Dave Black.

"It's about changing a culture, understanding that the expectation is that you come to school". Consequently, it has cracked down on daytime shopping expeditions and family holidays in term time.

Besides extra attendance officers, Dagenham Priory gets help from a behaviour and education support team - a multi-agency group including a psychologist and social worker working with its three feeder primary schools, as well as its own pupils. It's something the school sees as a useful tool for building knowledge of families.

Instant access to professional help is of great value to schools tackling this scale of deprivation, says Richard Baker, head at Croxteth community comprehensive, 200 miles north of Dagenham, near Liverpool. "Sometimes we felt we'd tried everything and we'd run out of ideas," he says. "We felt we needed more specialist help. We used to ring up and say we need an educational psychologist now, please - and, of course, we were told we had to wait in a queue. Now we have a team headed by a social inclusion co-ordinator, and including a policeman, a nurse and two social workers."

Croxteth has also trained two learning mentors to work one-to-one with children or their families to tackle "barriers to learning". It has also opened its own student support centre for those with behavioural problems, preferring not to accept money to build a centre which would accept those from outside, to avoid further "stigmatisation". With a counselling room, an internal sanctions area and a classroom to house "at risk" pupils, the centre gave the school space to deal with children who might otherwise disrupt classwork.

For Croxteth, the benefits have been harder to quantify, but Mr Baker does believe "the whole package" has brought changes. "The biggest change - and it takes a long time - is that we've given some pupils back a sense of self-belief and a measure of understanding of their problems so they can take responsibility."

Although they preferred, initially, to adopt a home-grown solution in building their student centre, Croxteth is now opening brand new accommodation, housing an education support team funded by the behaviour improvement programme.

Allowing schools to respoond in their own ways is important, says the National Union of Teachers. While welcoming "a major shift in government thinking on behaviour", the unions is picking up mixed responses to the behaviour improvement programme from a new survey.

Early responses indicate concerns that funds are being targeted at the most difficult pupils, leaving schools still unable to tackle low-level, but persistent disruption. There are also fears that such programmes may be used as another barrier to excluding a disruptive pupil.

Tackling the most disruptive students is the correct approach, says Kevin Lusk, deputy principal at Manchester Academy, serving Moss Side and Hulme in Manchester. "The spraying technique doesn't work," he says. "You can't focus on all troubles in a school. You can focus on the most disruptive child and the rest of the class benefits from that - it leaves the teacher free to concentrate on low-level misbehaviour."

The programmes may delay some exclusions, he says, but the Excellence in Cities schemes, rightly in his view, provide cash to slow the process down.

"A few years ago, it was decided exclusions would be slashed, but there was no money to back up the decision," he says. "The current government has put in the resources and it's transformed what we can do .

Children with attendance, behavioural or attainment difficulties often have needs beyond those that teachers can deal with. Previously they would try and deal with them; now others - like mentors - can address these needs and the teachers should be able to get on with teaching."

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