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No comfort in doing the right thing

Newcastle's strategies for dealing with truancy are up against an anti-education culture, says David Bell

Dealing with the publicity aftermath of league tables has become depressingly familiar each November. Schools and local education authorities brace themselves for a barrage of criticism when they find themselves near the bottom of one sort of league table or another.

While not at the bottom of the pile, Newcastle has attracted adverse comment over the past two years over attendance in its secondary schools. There is rarely the opportunity for reasoned and sensible debate on this subject in the autumn each year. However, there are a number of important issues which are worthy of attention.

The nature of Newcastle's problem is complex. Undoubtedly, too many young people fail to value education enough to attend school regularly. This anti-education culture is now deep-seated in certain parts of the city with many hard-core non-attenders coming from families where there is little tradition of regular employment or social stability. In addition, too many young people have low levels of literacy and poor communication skills.

There appears to be condoned absence, a point vividly reinforced during a joint Education Welfare Service Northumbria Police "blitz" of Eldon Square shopping centre. When challenged about having their children out of school, many parents were unconcerned about either their legal duty or the implications for their children.

Newcastle also finds itself unfavourably compared with other authorities in the region which appear to have better attendance. Initial research demonstrated that, although one neighbouring authority has a similar level of pupils on free school meals, such youngsters are more evenly dispersed across all its schools. The concentration of high levels of deprivation appears to be one factor which depresses levels of attendance.

Yet there can be no excuses made for high levels of non-attendance. For that reason, Newcastle has attempted to undertake a wide range of strategies to deal with non-attendance. There has been a growing recognition that the responsibility for securing attendance at school is a partnership involving parents, pupils, schools and LEA services. Non-attendance was seen as somebody else's problem. A recognition of shared responsibilities means that the issue is now being tackled across the education service.

Much has been done to improve registration and other administration to ensure that children who fail to attend school regularly are identified early and followed up.

The education welfare service has sought to target its work more, based on a system of referrals from schools. Schools are encouraged to target youngsters that need particular attention rather than refer everyone to the welfare service.

Newcastle is also working with Northumbria Police. When young people are stopped by the police for being out of school, a letter signed by the chief education officer and the police area commander is sent to the children's parents reminding them of their duty. Such cases are also followed up directly by the education welfare service.

The authority recently reintroduced a school attendance panel of LEA officers and headteachers to discuss non-attendance with parents and make recommendations.

Over the past two years, the authority has also prosecuted nearly l00 parents who have consistently failed to ensure their children attend school. The city has recently decided to increase the money spent on prosecutions. In a change of emphasis, the prosecutions will focus on parents of younger children.

It can be frustrating when local magistrates fail to treat truancy seriously. Derisory fines or making light of children failing to attend school is extremely frustrating to education welfare officers who have prepared a case. Without trying to place undue pressure on the bench, the city has made attempts to communicate the importance of good attendance and the support which can be given by magistrates.

Newcastle has also placed an emphasis on tackling the roots of truancy in primary schools. Patterns of irregular attendance can be established at an early age but they are not always identified. The Grants for Education Support and Training attendance project was refocused on primary schools although a bid to continue this work in 199798 was unsuccessful.

The Education Business Partnership has been promoting Primary Pathways, an initiative which is designed to highlight and develop punctuality and good attendance. Primary and secondary schools have also been looking at transfer between sectors. City Challenge funded a highly successful transition scheme where a teacher worked with Year 6 pupils in the summer term and transferred with them into secondary school.

As well as dealing with non-attendance, the city has sought to celebrate good attendance with initiatives such as a l00 per cent attendance club supported by local businesses. A range of other incentives are being tried out in schools across Newcastle.

Although Newcastle still has a long way to go, the city's process for dealing with non-attendance seems to be the right one. The different players are aware of their responsibilities and seek to complement each other's work. Strategies are being piloted across the city and good practice is increasingly being shared.

Detailed research work is being undertaken on specific problems. Advice has been sought from inspectors and other authorities. Dealing with the problem is only part of a wider strategy to raise standards by ensuring children have the basic skills from an early age, thus reducing disillusion and disenfranchisement later on.

Uncomfortable issues remain. Firstly, there is the unpalatable fact that a whole range of initiatives may not yield immediate results. It is no consolation to either individual schools or the LEA to be told by Office for Standards in Education teams or HMI that they are doing all the right things.

Immediate gains do not necessarily follow. In an age where quick fixes are demanded by politicians of all parties, there is a need to stand firm and hold your nerve. Constant evaluation, refining and retuning practice is more appropriate than lurching from gimmick to gimmick.

The next uncomfortable truth is that some immediate problems may only be solved by fundamental changes in the longer term. For example, there is a clear connection between improving early literacy and reducing non-attendance and exclusions in the longer term.

This is particularly true where an anti-education culture has developed. Although it is undoubtedly the case that many schools, including some in Newcastle, can dramatically boost attendance in a relatively short period, this is by no means universally the case.

There is a difficult balance to be struck between devoting resources to those who do not attend school and to those that do. No one would suggest that non-attenders are less entitled to a good education than other pupils, but resources may be siphoned from those who attend school regularly and are keen to learn. A more intelligent debate on this subject is long overdue.

Finally, non-attendance at school cannot be divorced from wider social problems and pressures. Too many young people in Newcastle and elsewhere in the country live in poor communities with little hope and even fewer prospects of employment and improvement.

Yet, it is precisely in such communities that education remains the single most important pathway out of poverty. There needs to be a crusade for education and learning where attendance at school is seen to be at the heart of new opportunities. Without such a passion for education, non-attendance will be the least of society's worries as the new millennium approaches.

David Bell is chief education officer of Newcastle C

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