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Make truants, not parents, take the rap for absence

The latest attendance figures for primary schools in Wales give us a chance to reflect. In one sense, they provide us with an opportunity to congratulate teachers and heads on the fact that Wales is - at last - starting to narrow the gap with our English neighbours on absenteeism and truancy. The statistics show that many of the initiatives undertaken by schools and local authorities are beginning to work, despite mass familial breakdown (the cause of so much non-attendance and truancy) increasing the potential to put more pupils at risk.

But we can't afford to be complacent. It should be of concern that 33,848 primary pupils in Wales are absent for more than 20 days a year. The fact that England has reported that its unauthorised absence rates are up by a third, with 650,000 pupils truanting daily, shows us what can happen if we relax.

The National Behaviour and Attendance Review, which I chaired, strongly recommended that the Assembly government should "prioritise early intervention strategies on work with attendance and behavioural-related problems amongst children and young people". Clearly, this is beginning to happen, but it seems to be proving more effective in some schools and local authorities than others.

So why is it that some urban local authorities, such as Cardiff, Newport and Caerphilly, have between two and five times as many recorded incidents of truancy as other urban authorities, such as Swansea, Wrexham or Neath Port Talbot? All six authorities have large numbers of pupils from low incomes and deprived backgrounds and many are entitled to free school meals.

So do the statistics suggest that early intervention is prioritised better in some authorities than others? Or could it be that attendance is less rigorously promoted in some schools?

In Wales, we tend to include in the figures pupils who have been taken on term-time holidays. My recent analysis of some attendance data for England suggests that 15 to 35 per cent of all absences in some local authorities, and within some schools, could be due to parents taking children out of school for holidays.

The rules in Wales are that parents or carers may take children out of school for up to 10 days with the prior consent of the head. Ideally, this should be in writing. But parents often ignore this regulation, and some schools enforce it more than others.

Some schools in Wales mark term-time holidays with an H when written or oral permission has been granted. Others actively discourage term-time holidays, especially when no permission has been granted. They mark the absence as unauthorised. This may partly explain the marked variations in statistics between different local authorities and schools, even in similar areas.

Recently, England decided to change its approach to quantifying absences, so the distinction between authorised and unauthorised absence has disappeared. Furthermore, where evidence exists of pupils being taken out of school to go on holiday, these statistics are now excluded from official returns. After all, why should schools and local authorities be penalised for events outside of their control?

So is it time we in Wales started a similar debate?

In England, prosecutions of parents for their children's non-attendance have significantly increased, with a parent now being jailed every two weeks. In some local authorities, up to four or five times more than this are being taken to court, fined or, in extreme cases, jailed. Yet, English attendance statistics have grown worse. This reflects the fact that punishing parents for their children's non-attendance seems to work only in a small percentage of cases. Yet, it is a useful deterrent.

Perhaps in Wales, since no official punishments have been found to work consistently well over the past 100 years, we should start to look for more radical solutions.

Interestingly, in some recent research undertaken for the attendance review, secondary-age children said parents should not be blamed for their non-attendance. Sometimes they played truant without their parents' knowledge. They suggested that, as they were the truants, they should receive the punishment. This idea is worth further consideration. It would require a change in the law, but the suggestion is not as daft as it sounds. Young people these days mature a lot earlier than children 100 years ago. An adolescent of 14 now is at least as mature as a 16-year-old then.

So should children over 14, for example, be held accountable for their actions when not attending school? What punishment might be suitable for primary pupils? Or 11- to 14-year-olds?

This might prove to be a meaningful and worthwhile debate to start. So why not place it on your next school council agenda? After all, it was children who made the suggestion and it fits in well with the growing concept of pupils' rights.

Ken Reid, Deputy vice-chancellor, Swansea Metropolitan University and chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review.

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