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Pupils lost in the system

As Government sets up its social exclusion unit, Glasgow head's survey reveals the scale of transient children.

A transient pupil population moving in and out of schools at will is playing havoc with attendance and attainment, according to figures collated by a Glasgow headteacher.

Jim Cassels, head of Bellahouston Academy, has unmasked "a large number of pupils moving around the system who show no commitment to their education, sometimes attending more than one secondary school in just four years, with an obviously adverse effect on their progress" His experience was confirmed by Kenny Dykes, head of Barrhead High in East Renfrewshire, who told a national conference on attendance in Edinburgh on Tuesday that his previous school in Glasgow had 46 per cent pupil turnover from first to fourth year.

"Multiply that by pupil absences, teacher turnover and teacher absences and you have an idea of the scale of the problem,"he said.

The Bellahouston figures, which Dr Cassels presented to the same conference at which this year's "truancy tables" were launched, show that only 75 per cent of last session's fourth year had a full education there; the remaining quarter moved in and out.

This picture emerged in the week when the Government targeted education as a key factor in combatting "social exclusion," an initiative launched in London and Glasgow by the Prime Minister and the Scottish Secretary.

Professor John MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre at Jordanhill, confirmed the existence of the problem from his UK school effectiveness studies.

He said it stems from a mixture of factors, including families breaking up, housing problems, migration and parents often keeping one step ahead of the law.

The average attendance of Bellahouston pupils who were present in the school for the first four years was 80 per cent; for the mobile group it was only 65 per cent.

The school also found that, while 5 per cent of completed enrolments to S4 had less than 50 per cent attendance, 36 per cent of the second group spent less than half their time in school.

The links to attainment are stark: 18 per cent of the pupils who started in first year achieved seven or eight Standard grades 1-3, while only 3 per cent of the incomplete attenders did.

The former group had 43 per cent without any Standard grades 1-3, compared with 73 per cent of the latter.

"Does attendance matter?" Dr Cassels asked. "You bet it does."

Apart from monitoring the position, the school is operating the "flexible curriculum" given the official go-ahead by Glasgow in July. This allows some pupils to take seven rather than eight Standard grades so they can spend more time on the basic skills and build up their self-esteem.

Margaret Orr, Glasgow's senior education officer, said sporadic appearances by pupils are "a major drain on the energies of staff as they struggle to make pupils catch up, which then affects the work of the rest of the class. It makes a significant contribution to teacher stress and can lead staff to take the attitude that the pupils might as well stay away."

In his speech to the conference Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, called on schools to act against parentally condoned absences, or "authorised absences". This reached a peak last session at St Mary's Primary in Stirling (16 per cent) and Drumchapel High in Glasgow (26 per cent).

Social background should not be used as an alibi for poor attendance, Mr Wilson added. "We don't take this attitude when we are dealing with adults. "

High levels of absenteeism in the workplace would be laid at the door of management and structure of the organisation to identify why the workforce was not being successfully motivated.

Agenda for the excluded, page 5.

Absenteeism: the problem and solutions, pages 6-7

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