Two images come to mind when trying to explain what a complicated business truancy is. One is of a small child rattling the closed gate of an Edinburgh nursery school, crying with the frustration of not being able to get through. At three years of age, this little lad was not attempting to escape, but trying to get in. I could not help but wonder if this same child might, in 10 years' time, be rattling a school gate from the other side.
The other is a vivid memory from my days as form tutor to a bottom stream group in a Birmingham school 25 years ago, and is of Dave, a miserable truanting youth of 14, huddled in the allotment shed to which I had tracked him down. Ever since, I have asked myself many times how it could be that a normal, healthy pupil would rather be alone in a wooden shed on a cold, wet day than in a warm and well-run school with friends and caring teachers.
Only Dave knew the pressures that made him truant, and he could hardly articulate them to himself, let alone to any of the adults in his life. The image of him serves me well in countering the common belief that truancy is a naughty, Huckleberry Finn sort of business that can be tackled by detection and punishment.
The truth is that truancy is only one manifestation of disaffection with school - others include serious misbehaviour and under-achievement. The Truancy File written by Professor John Macbeath at Strathclyde University and recently sent to every school north of the border by the Scottish Office, clearly recognises this. "Young people who attend well," it says, "tend to come to school feeling secure; are motivated to learn; have the support of family and friends; achieve success in what they do." Poor attenders, by contrast, have anxieties and difficulties about some or all of these things, and tend to run away from risk of failure or ridicule.
Arguably, the positive approach of The Truancy File mirrors a wider tendency in Scotland to deal with youthful disaffection through welfare rather than through confrontation. Dr Russell Forrest, principal officer for children and families in Lothian Region's education department, (the title of his post is itself an indicator of the way the region does things) talks of "a Scottish agenda which is child-centred". He believes that the word "truancy" is like "delinquent" or "psychopath" - "it's a label, a way of swearing at children, an adult resistance to enquiring further into what's going on."
This "welfare" approach, he believes, was heralded by the Kilbrandon report of 1964 which led to Scotland abandoning juvenile courts and moving to children's panels. "Kilbrandon called children in trouble 'hostages to fortune' and said that there was no point in compartmentalising and categorising them. It was a beacon of good thinking about children."
The Truancy File suggests that children are "at the centre of three spheres of influence - school, community, home. Coping with all three is too daunting a task for some." The good news, though, is that the school is not facing a hopeless task: "Schools can do a lot about truancy." Bearing this out is research showing that when you look at schools with a fairly similar social profile "there are substantial differences in pupil attendance patterns from one to the next".
Talking to John MacBeath and to Edinburgh heads, and studying the file itself, confirmed that there are two clearly defined dimensions to any school's approach to keeping up its attendance figures. One is through the mechanics of monitoring attendance and following up absence. The file says a good deal about this, and offers management advice on registration, lesson checks and general supervision.
The other is the degree to which the school can motivate the generality of its pupils and make specialist provision for those who might vote with their feet. This dimension is what the schools invariably want to emphasise. Thus Mike Hay, head of Tynecastle High School, a mile or so from Edinburgh's Princes Street, believes that "the bottom line ought to be that pupils see enough in the value of school that they don't have to be coerced to come".
John MacBeath chose to look at the issue from the other direction. "If you've got an unpleasant school with poor teaching and bad relationships, then I've every sympathy for the child who says he's not going. And in those circumstances, rounding the truants up seems dysfunctional."
Strikingly, every one of the heads and teachers I spoke to in Edinburgh was keen to emphasise the importance of praise as a motivator. Tynecastle's assistant head Douglas Short, who is in charge of "guidance", believes that if you get it right in the classroom, "then things should be better all round". We met in a classroom full of senior pupils who worked solidly without intervention as we talked.
This same belief in the motivating powers of the orderly, work dominated and yet positive and friendly classroom is much in evidence at Broughton High School, which takes pupils from the widest possible range of the city's social spectrum. When the present head, Gordon Ford, arrived in 1993, attendance was running at about 85 per cent following a merger with a school in a difficult area. "We've pushed it up to just under 90 per cent and we've done it by positive policies, not negative and punitive ones."
None of this, though, is the same thing as believing in the soft option. John MacBeath, indeed, went out of his way to suggest that, "disturbed, unhappy kids don't always need comforting. Sometimes they need clear direction. In these cases, support can mean saying 'you are jolly well coming to school'."
In the same way, Dr Forrest, for his part, is clear that although Lothian has three support centres for disaffected pupils, these are not places of comfortable refuge from the real world. "The curriculum is matched as closely as possible to that of their own schools. It is not segregated. The pupils need help to access the school curriculum."
Both supporting and driving this positive approach to school attendance in Edinburgh schools is Lothian region's inter-agency youth strategy programme, something that is at risk when Lothian disappears later this decade through reorganisation. The aim of youth strategy is to keep troubled children in their own schools and communities, and, in pursuit of this, the main thrust is delegated to school level. Thus each Lothian high school has its own youth strategy committee which typically includes the school doctor, a social worker and an educational psychologist as well as teachers. The committee meets regularly and frequently both to review individual cases and to discuss general policy.
The aim always is to look ahead and keep pupils either from truanting or being excluded. One device, for example, is the temporarily modified timetable which avoids potential "hotspots". Another, used at Broughton High, is a student support base called "The John Kerr Room" in commemoration of the caring work done by a much-loved assistant head who died in 1989. This room, managed by a learning support specialist and staffed by interested teachers, looks after a maximum of six pupils at a time who might have been temporarily sent, explains Gordon Ford, "for really atrocious behaviour which in some schools would just result in exclusion. It gives us time to look at longer term solutions - a move to a different teaching group for example." Again, this is not an easy option. "The work ethic is strong and the atmosphere is quiet."
The really crucial ingredient of the school-based youth strategy committees, however, is that they have some resources with which to work. Thus Broughton High's committee has 1.5 teachers and part of the time of a social worker, provided by the education department, to carry out the region's policy of keeping disaffected children working in mainstream schools in their own communities.
Evidence that youth strategy works (and is cost effective at a time when local budgets across the UK are under pressure) is provided by Dr Forrest. Ten years ago there were about 200 Lothian children in residential schools; now there are only about 80. Formal exclusions are down by about 60 per cent.
Evidently though - and this is generally acknowledged by the most concerned of teachers - there comes a point of diminishing returns beyond which too many resources are likely to be used on a recalcitrant hard core of pupils and families. As Gordon Ford says: "Our job is to provide mainstream education to all our pupils. Anything that diminishes our service to them cannot be allowed to happen."
Nevertheless, there is a strong case for going a long way down the road of prevention - not least because there will be pay-off benefits later in reduced care and crime costs. As The Truancy File puts it, truancy matters because, among other things, "it costs the taxpayer money. It is an economic waste of potential skills and knowledge."
The most cogent reasons, though, for tackling poor attendance come from the truants themselves. What tragic might-have-beens leap from between the lines of this story, told in The Truancy File by a young person left behind by the opportunity caravan?
"I guess I just gave up in the end. Every time I came to school I got told off about my appearance, behaviour and workIIn the end I just gave up. Nobody seemed to understand me or care."
John MacBeath: A lifelong interest in disaffected school pupils
John MacBeath (right), director of the quality in education centre at Strathclyde University, is effectively the author of The Truancy File. That he should have produced a document which is both practical and humane is not altogether surprising, given his lifelong interest in disaffected school pupils. In the early Seventies, for example, when he was a lecturer at Jordanhill College, he was active in the Free School movement.
Very much a product of their time, the Free Schools were usually set up on a shoestring in urban areas, catering for local children who would rather not go to the local comprehensive. The most famous of the English Free Schools were probably the Scotland Road School in Liverpool and the White Lion School in Islington.
John MacBeath's school was Barrowfield, in Glasgow. "I started it in 1971, with three of my students, in response to a request from a group of parents. We began with six pupils in an old church hall. In a couple of years we had 27 students and three full-time teachers."
There were a number of remarkable things about Barrowfield - for example, because the families and children needed it, the school was open every day including Christmas day. "The teachers worked literally full-time, for nothing, at a time of teacher shortage when they could have got jobs anywhere." Another feature was that the pupils had a strong say in everything, including the appointment of teachers.
For one reason or another, however, most of the Free Schools came to an end in the mid-Seventies, contributing to their own demise, many feel, by showing local state schools what could be done.
Barrowfield was no exception. In 1974 the building was burned down by a student who had refused to accept a democratically negotiated sanction for stealing on a school trip. By then the local comprehensive was running a special unit very much on Barrowfield lines.
The values that John MacBeath held then, however, are still very much alive. The Truancy File, though uncompromising where it needs to be, displays his strong belief in a non-confrontational approach to difficult pupils. The File contains, too, many quotations from pupils, confirming his belief in consulting children about the things which affect them. "In all the research I have done since, I have paid a lot of attention to the views of the pupils."
The daily attendance check
8am-8.55am: Guidance staff arriving at school check details of pupils "at risk" that day and arrange to see them
8.55-9am1.25-1.30pm: All pupils report for registration 9am-9.301.30-2pm:Any pupils arriving late sign in at office- giving their reasons for lateness
10am: Each member of staff gets absence list for that day
3pm: Single ring of bell reminds all staff to enter any discrepancies, that is, pupils not marked absent who failed to turn up
3.05-4.45pm: Office staff collate all records for the day noting all truancies
The Truancy File: What it is
The Truancy File, like the very successful Homework File which preceded it, was developed, for the Scottish Office, by the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde.
It is presented in four separate sections which together deal with the whole spectrum of issues surrounding school attendance - why truancy matters, getting a measure of the issue, causes and cures, and making policy work. Each section consists of a short A4 booklet, and all four are held in an envelope folder.
The emphasis throughout is on disseminating good practice. For example, in "getting a measure of the issue" which is about monitoring attendance, there is a page on "tracking attendance patterns" which is based directly on a study by two schools of attendance and non-attendance over a year.
Another strong feature is the file's emphasis on pupils' own experiences. "Causes and cures", for example, has a section which quotes the perspectives of pupil, parent and teacher on the same incident. Right through to the fourth booklet, "making policy work", the file draws constantly on the experience of actual projects and named schools. In two Paisley schools the most important lessons learned from a community project to raise attendance and attainment was "an adult from the school taking a personal interest in the pupil's attendance, keeping in regular contact with the home and challenging absences at an early stage". This approach - to refer always to established practice in real schools - is a hallmark of John MacBeath's work.
The Truancy File, Quality in Education Centre for Research and Consultancy, University of Strathclyde, Faculty of Education, 76 Southbrae Drive, Jordanhill, Glasgow G13 1PP. Pounds 20 (repeat orders Pounds 15), plus Pounds 2.50 postage.