NOBODY is sure precisely how many pupils skip school on a daily basis. The last national survey - in 1974 - suggested that approximately 10 per cent of secondary pupils miss school daily, of whom 2.2 per cent were truants.
Since then, almost everything about schooling has changed and many of the reforms have had, and are continuing to have, an effect upon attendance.
Twenty-five years ago there were comparatively few truants from primary schools. Today, more and more pupils are truanting from primary schools. Some pupils are now confirmed truants by the age of seven.
Whereas most truants used to be loners, now they skip schools in groups whether single-sex or mixed-sex. While truancy used to be seen as a form of harmless fun, it is now associated with criminal activity, under-age sex and drinking, drugs and other forms of social isolation.
Some aspects remain comparatively unchanged from 25 years ago. For example, a disproportionate number of pupils from ethnic-minority and working-class backgrounds truant. Some schools, even those within similar catchment areas and with pupils from similar social backgrounds, have much higher rates of absence and truancy than others.
Similarly, geographical, age and gender differences abound.
Within the past decade, however, both specific-lesson and post-registration truancy have increased - a fact which many attribute to the previous inflexibility of the national curriculum and its perceived irrelevance for the needs of lower-ability pupils. Few truants are potential scholars.
Pressure has recently increased on schools to combat levels of unauthorised absence. The Government has set each secondary school the target of reducing unauthorised absences by a third between September 1998 and September 2002. Schools with absences greater than 10 per cent may now be subject to special measures by the Office for Standards in Education. Most failing schools have severe problems of either truancy or indiscipline or both.
In fact, these two issues are often as important, or more important, than curriculum-
related matters when inspectors decide to place a school into the special measures category or to fail a school.
Schools are also under other increased forms of pressure to reduce their levels of unauthorised absence. This is partly coming from local education authorities who are now the subject of inspections by OFSTED or the Audit Commission or both. It is also coming from the published results of local and regional league tables as well as from some governing bodies, which often do not understand why their schools should be near or at the bottom of these league tables.
Pressure also comes from parents who wish to send their children to high-achieving schools rather than to perceived failing ones, or those which cater for large numbers of disaffected pupils like truants.
In some parts of the country, pressure is also being exerted by the police who now have the power to return truants to schools and who are becoming increasingly worried by the range of social problems manifested by truants.
Unfortunately, given all this pressure, it is hardly surprising that many schools are doing all they can to minimise their published rates of unauthorised absence. In fact, in many schools, pupils are repeatedly asked for notes from parents to justify their non-attendance. As soon as a pupil returns with a note, the school marks the absence as authorised - irrespective of cause. In effect, some schools are condoning truancy.
Interestingly, police truancy patrols are already reporting that some truants are walking the streets with false notes for their absence stuck in their pockets.
Headteachers are increasingly finding themselves with a dilemma. If they accurately report their true absence rates, they are castigated by their governors, staff, OFSTED, local education authorities and parents and their schools suffer in a variety of ways, not least financially. If they distort their true absence figures, then they are perceived as being complacent and are more liable to suffer fall-out from OFSTED who have recently been instructed to check on the accuracy of a school's attendance statistics.
Some heads are openly reporting at conferences that these moral pressures on senior staff are helping to promote higher stress levels within the profession.
But, the moral pressure does not end here. After years of neglect, the present Government has put truancy at the top of its education agenda - alongside standards, literacy, numeracy and school effectiveness.
The Prime Minister has given a lead by interviewing groups of good and bad attenders from schools. He has created a social exclusion unit which published its first annual truancy and school exclusion report last year. This unit is already beginning to be seen at the forefront of endeavours to reduce truancy and exclusion and related crime during school time and during out-of-hours activities (see box, above).
Within schools too a great deal of dedicated hard work to reduce and combat truancy has already started (see box above). These ideas include implementing and making school policy documents on attendance function effectively. They also include more and better emphasis on primary school prevention, on improved primary-secondary school transfers, and on the reduction of bullying.
In some schools they include the novel use of school surveys, mentoring, and parental support groups as well as utilising appropriate reintegration strategies. In others, schemes include the use of "at risk" registers, examining the school-related factors that cause pupils to miss school, and using school-based review processes to improve and promote better attendance.
Despite all these worthwhile initiatives and the hard work by teachers, caring professionals and the social exclusion unit, there is little evidence that absence rates from schools are really decreasing. Indeed, there is some evidence to the contrary. It is, for example, worrying to find that a disproportionate and higher number of truants emanate from one-parent families.
Moreover, there are worrying signs that in certain parts of the country groups of disaffected pupils are beginning to rampage through the streets creating no-go areas which are stricken with high levels of vandalism, criminality and verbal abuse to local residents.
The link between disaffection and truancy in schools hours is beginning to be associated with delinquent conduct in the evenings, at weekends and during school holidays.
With recent concern in the media about the use of drugs by school-age pupils, under-age sex and findings that up to two-thirds of some daytime crime is attributable to truants, this is no time for complacency.
There is a real danger that events could spiral downhill ever more quickly unless parents and society regain control. The Government has begun to show an interest. It is still learning the real consequences for society of disaffected behaviour and truancy among the underprivileged and disadvantaged underclass.
The nation, too, faces another huge challenge. Research shows that truants tend to become failures in their adult lives. Not only do more truants become young and adult offenders but they experience more job changes, more unemployment, and tend to lead unhappy personal lives, full of financial and emotional crises. Male truants tend to marry female truants.
Truants, more so than any other school-age groups, are also far more likely to become dependent on the state for their long-term needs and financial support. So the state is spending millions annually on payments to families headed by former truants. In turn, these truant families are fostering second and third-generational truants of their own. It is clear that if the state could find ways of reducing current levels of unauthorised pupil absence, it would in the long-term save itself many millions of pounds each year from its social security budget.
Professor Ken Reid is author of "Tackling Truancy in Schools" and "Truancy and Schools" which are being published by Routledge this week and November respectively. Professor Reid is assistant principal at Swansea Institute of Higher Education.
New initiatives being promoted by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit include such schemes as:
raising literacy and numeracy levels
establishing homework clubs
utilising information and communication technology and home-school agreements
pupil panels to tackle truancy
the introduction and use of classroom assistants
the summer school initiative
the use of pagers, first-day contact, and, finally,
the threat of privatising or closing failing schools.
Measures being put into effect in schools include:
the inclusion of truancy as a topic in personal and social education programmes
the use of suggestion boxes to help with vulnerable pupils
the use of security firms
the formation of anti-truancy teams
positive reinforcement schemes to combat lateness and post-registration truancy
initiating return-to-school policies
clarifying staff roles
improving inter-agency co-operation
using social workers in schools
providing second-chance opportunities
setting up more relevant work-placement schemes (often in conjunction with further education colleges)
developing better vocational programmes, and
modifying the national curriculum to suit less able pupils who are most likely to truant.