The education welfare service is a specialist support agency which was set up to work in partnership with schools, the local education authorities and related agencies to provide a quality service to young people and their families.
In practice, education welfare officers (EWOs) deal with any problem that may prevent school-aged pupils from getting the most out of their education. Therefore, they often work with the whole family, providing a supportive link between the pupil's home and school.
The first research into this group of professionals' views on how best to manage school attendance, based on a detailed postal questionnaire sent to 431 EWOs in England and Wales, posed some interesting questions about how to reduce absenteeism.
Just over half of EWOs (51 per cent) believe that the best way to improve pupils' attendance is to provide more and better alternative or vocational curriculum schemes within schools or the local education authority.
This is a view shared with professionals in schools, including form tutors and headteachers (see TES Cymru, December 16).
Beyond this, however, there is little consensus among the officers. One in eight consider that parents taken to court for their children's non-attendance should receive higher fines, which they should be made to pay in full. EWOs, especially in cases of non-attendance where court action is deemed necessary, may give evidence against the parent or carer and help to prepare the case.
The officers thought the most serious reasons why so many pupils presently truant or miss school are, in order of importance:
* a parents condoning their children's absence;
* range of socioeconomic factors;
* parents taking their children out of school for holidays during term time;
* the lack of suitable curriculum schemes, alternative or vocational ;
* unsatisfactory court outcomes;
* pupils' low self-esteem;
* post-registration truancy.
Bullying was found to be an issue in approximately one in six cases. The rigidity of the national curriculum was a factor in one in seven referrals.
Surprisingly, poor teaching and poor teacher-pupil relationships did not feature as prime issues.
Around one in three EWOs considered they were in the best position to help truants and non-attenders reintegrate back into schools. The remainder felt that this task could be best achieved by learning mentors (15 per cent), form tutors (14 per cent), home-school liaison officers (10 per cent) or heads of year (9 per cent).
Interestingly, in parallel research, 45 per cent of form tutors said help should only be given by outside specialist agencies. That only one in three EWOs feels they are best placed to help truants back into school life suggests there is a lack of confidence among this group of core professionals about one of their main functions.
There may be several reasons for this paradoxical self-doubt. First, existing education welfare staff claim to be too few in number to influence outcomes. Second, they believe their caseloads tend to be crisis-orientated.
Third, some staff are trying to manage referrals from as many as five or six secondary schools - and often all the related feeder primaries.
Finally, some EWOs consider their task is only to return missing pupils to schools. Therefore, those involved in reintegration strategies should be either specialist school staff or other supporting agencies (for example, educational psychology or behaviour support).
In fact, more than four out of five EWOs (81 per cent) consider that their service should only become involved once schools have exhausted their own pastoral activity and reintegration strategies used by their own staff, including senior and middle managers, form tutors, learning mentors and classroom assistants, among others.
However, if such a referral system was to become widely adopted by LEAs, then educational welfare might cease to be a frontline service provision for schools. In effect, it would become a second-tier strategic agency which only dealt with the most persistent cases. The role of education welfare within fully integrated children's services, as envisaged by the Children Act of 2004, also still needs to be resolved in most LEAs.
It seems logical to suggest that the provision of education welfare support to schools throughout Wales should become more universal, consistent and cohesive.
Heads need to feel confident about the rationale and reasons for referring non-attendance cases to the education welfare department, and the service they can expect in return.
Unless there is greater clarity, more heads may begin to request day-to-day control over the activities of their welfare staff.
Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education