The good, the bad and the misjudged

Neil Munro reports on what the latest attendance tables tell schools. The level of attendance and absence is described as "relatively stable" between 1994-95 and 1995-96. The third set of Scottish Office tables in this area, published on Monday, compares two sessions for the first time. But Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, admitted: "There is no great magic solution at St Andrew's House to tackle this problem. It is best tackled on the ground." Some 18 per cent of secondaries improved their overall figure.

The overall absence rate in primaries last year was 6 per cent, the equivalent of two weeks' lost schooling per pupil out of a maximum 38 weeks. The previous year's average was 5 per cent. Secondary absenteeism, approved and otherwise, rose from 11 per cent to 12 per cent, the equivalent of each pupil being absent for more than four weeks out of 38.

The figure for unauthorised absence, defined as truancies, temporary exclusions and unexplained absences, was unchanged, at zero in primary and 1 per cent in secondary. Authorised absence, which ranges from study leave to sickness or other sanctioned activities, rose from in primaries from 5 per cent to 6 per cent and from 10 per cent to 11 per cent in secondaries.

There were considerable variations in the 32 new education authorities. The average absence rate in the primary sector was relatively consistent at 6 per cent. But the secondary average goes from 6 per cent in Orkney to 19 per cent in Glasgow to give a national average of 12 per cent .

When the total absence figures are split between unauthorised and approved absences, there are even more startling differences. Perth and Kinross has the highest incidence of unauthorised absenteeism among primary pupils purely because the 150-pupil Perth Northern District, serving large pockets of deprivation, is the country's top truanting primary. Its 6 per cent figure contrasts with the national zero rate, although it is a slight improvement on the previous year's figure of 7 per cent.

Midlothian, Shetland, South Ayrshire and the Western Isles record no primary pupils on unauthorised absence.

The figures for authorised absenteeism among primary pupils range from 17 per cent at Craigo primary in Angus to a low of 6 per cent at Botriphnie, Millbank and St Gerardine's primaries in Moray.

In the secondary sector, the national average of 1 per cent for unauthorised absence contrasts with the highest figure of 9 per cent, recorded at Kirkton High and Rockwell High in Dundee and at Victoria Drive Secondary in Glasgow (which shot up from 1 per cent in 1994-95).

Argyll and Bute, Shetland and the Western Isles say they had no pupils off secondary school without permission last year. This makes the Western Isles the only authority in which all primary and secondary pupils were accounted for last year. The authorised absence rate of 11 per cent among secondary pupils ranges from 7 per cent at Sanday Junior High in Orkney to 27 per cent at St Gerard's Secondary in Glasgow.

Douglas Osler, HM senior chief inspector of schools, reiterated the Government's major concern that "taking children off school damages their chances of attaining well". The link between absence and exam results is highlighted in the 1996 tables which continue to show a stubborn fall-off in attendance as pupils move up into the critical examination years.

The average attendance figure for children in primary 7 was 94 per cent which declines to 84 per cent in S4 and S5. But a considerable contribution to the fall is made by study leave for senior pupils, classified in the tables as authorised absence which works out at 14 per cent in the fourth and fifth years compared with 8 per cent, 9 per cent and 11 per cent in S1, S2 and S3.

Mr Robertson emphasised that publication of tables had "opened up the once secret world of Scottish education" and forced schools to recognise truancy as a problem. "We are trying to get everyone in education talking about why pupils miss school," he said.

He also announced that the Scottish Initiative on Attendance and Absence is to have "Attainment" included in its title.

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