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Pilloried, but it's a load of codswallop, says head

Attendance levels in Scottish schools have barely improved over the past three years, according to the latest set of figures issued on Tuesday.

Total absences in secondary schools have in fact crept up from 11 per cent in 1994-95 to 12 per cent the following year and last year. Primary absenteeism has gone from 5 per cent to 6 per cent and back to 5 per cent.

Unauthorised absences, basically truanting and temporary exclusions, have remained static at 1 per cent in secondary and zero in primary over the three years.

Total absences mean that each primary pupil is off school for two weeks out of 38 and each secondary pupil for four weeks. The problem, as before, increases from primary into secondary and peaks at the third and fourth year stages : attendance declined from 95 per cent in P7 to 85 per cent in S4.

But the entire exercise has been sharply criticised by the head of Victoria Drive secondary which holds the record for the number of half-day unauthorised absences per pupil, 37 against the secondary average of 5.

David Nicholson dismissed the data, collated by the HMI audit unit, as "a load of codswallop". He added: "The audit unit prints whatever it gets which is a very strange way of auditing. The pupils are either here or they are not, so why worry about whether they are authorised or unauthorised absences? If the unauthorised average for secondary schools is only 1 per cent, why are we bothering?" Victoria Drive takes a hard line: if there is no explanation or no note, absences are recorded as unauthorised. "We are then pilloried for high levels of truancy," Mr Nicholson complains.

But he points out that his school's total absence level of 19 per cent is in line with the Glasgow secondary average of 18 per cent. He also emphasises the steadily-improving number of fourth year pupils who gained five or more Standard grades which, at 85 per cent, is above the Glasgow average. "If the pupils were not here that would not be possible," he adds.

The figures mask the usual 57 varieties of circumstance. East and West Lothian are the only authorities which officially have any primary truants, 1 per cent in each case. In the secondary sector no truanting is recorded by six authorities, a combination of the leafy and the rural - Argyll, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Borders, Shetland and Western Isles.

Attendance at primary schools ranges from 97 per cent in Falkirk to 92 per cent in Glasgow; the secondary sector has a range from 94 per cent attendance in Orkney to 82 per cent in Glasgow.

Translated into number of half-day absences per pupil, the Scottish average for secondary schools is 40 authorised and 5 unauthorised (20 and 1 in primary). But 53 secondaries are in double figures for unauthorised half-days off, including Victoria Drive secondary.

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