Don't blame the truants

Schools can do a lot more to help children who skive off because they are ashamed of their poverty or in fear of a ticking off, says Jean Anderson.

HEN the opposing sides stop kicking the ball of education around, maybe they will take a break to think about how we are all failing those young people who seem to have replaced single mothers as the nation's scapegoats - the truants.

At the moment most of the discussion on the subject seems to centre on punishment: punish the parents by depriving them of benefits, benefits which are meant to alleviate deprivation; punish the children, by the same token. Already parents of persistent truants have to appear in court - charged with failing in their duty to ensure their children's attendance at school. More often than not there is little parents or courts can do about the problem when it has reached this stage.

Whatever the original reason for truanting, the longer it has gone on, the more difficult it is for such children to go back to school. They are marked persons. Furthermore, imposing fines on people who cannot afford to pay is unproductive. Branding as a criminal a child who for some reason cannot face school is criminal in itself.

There are many reasons why young people stay away from school. At the bottom of the scale there are those who skive off occasionally: the Huckleberry Finn syndrome. Sometimes the call of freedom is too strong and they just have to thumb their noses at authority. This usually happens during a spell of good weather and often on a Friday afternoon, and is usually done in company. It is not serious - a day's detention and a telling-off prevents it happening more than once or twice.

Bullying is, of course, one of the reasons for persistent truanting. But it is not as frequent as one might think, and not always inflicted by other pupils - teachers sometimes bully without being aware of it. It may take the form of nagging about homework or lack of school uniform, over which the young person may have no control.

I remember once protesting, as a form teacher, at two of my first-year boys being publicly chastised by a guidance teacher for wearing trainers. When I pointed out that I had a note from the mother of one apologising because he had grown out of his school shoes and she could not afford more, I was told that "rules are rules". Both boys became persistent truants. Would you attend a place where you were held up to public ridicule?

Unrealistic dress codes - white shirts, ties, V-necked pullovers and blazers - are totally impractical for parents on a tight budget. Cheap trainers (less than pound;50) set you apart and make you a target for bullying in this image-obsessed world, as does the wrong kind of PE kit. Schools should ban ostentatious designer labels and have dress codes that can be attained by all.

Falling behind with work is another reason for staying away and, in a Catch-22 situation, the more you fall behind, the more you truant, the more you fall behind. There is no blanket solution. However, there are individual solutions:

* A total change of school, so that a fresh start is possible.

* A strict no-bullying policy for teachers as well as pupils.

* Private tuition to bring pupils up to speed if they have fallen behind.

* Transport from door to door until the pupil can be re-established in the school.

* Parents to deliver children into the hands of a responsible person at the school - even staying with them when feasible.

* After-school classes attended by parents and children.

* Police to play a more pastoral role in returning truants to school.

Finally, more effort must be put into finding out from the pupils why they truant and putting it right for them. We are responsible for all of our young people; for seeing that they get the best start in life - and not just their parents, or teachers. It is in the interests of us all.

Jean Anderson is a retired secondary teacher.

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