Reasons for attendance

Larkin was thinking about sex but here in Hull new approaches are getting pupils back into class, writes Kevin Berry

At Reeve primary school, children get a birthday card every year. "But they have to be in school to get their card," says head Steve Graham. "It used to be that they would take a day off, but not now."

Celebrating away from school is just one of the attitudes being challenged at Reeve - also at Kingswood High, its neighbouring comprehensive. Ray Khan, the assistant head who oversees attendance at Kingswood, says there was a tradition of taking children out of school to buy a pair of shoes. A visit to the dentist or doctor was another excuse. Some pupils stayed off on Fridays because they were "too tired".

But such attitudes are being challenged. Attendance clerks call home, and parents are being surprised - and often pleased - because schools are taking an interest in pupils' whereabouts.

Kingswood's attendance used to be little above 70 per cent, when it was struggling under another name. After three years, a figure of 92 per cent is being predicted for this year.

Hull is steadily coming to terms with a formidable problem but, despite a rise of 2.9 per cent in attendance over the past three years, the city is still bottom of the league table. Many schemes are being tried, including targeting pupils predicted to get good GCSE grades, as well as finding homes where adults allow truants to hide. Some local supermarket and bus sweeps have also helped to publicise the authority's endeavours.

"Police and welfare officers took five children off the bus - to the prolonged applause of all the passengers," according to one newspaper report.

The first months at a new secondary can seem daunting, and playing truant can become a great temptation. To combat such feelings, Kingswood's Year 7 pupils have their own entrance, which has been designed to look like a traditional primary school. They stay in their own classrooms for most lessons, with the obvious exceptions of subjects such as PE and science. And the strategy seems to have paid off; last year's Year 7 managed 96 per cent attendance. As pupils move up the school, children who are deemed "vulnerable" are retained in a secure core group which spends more time in its home classroom.

"If there was a problem they would usually run out of school, but now they run to me," says Elaine Wainwright, the school's attendance liaison officer. She has an affection for Bransholme, which is where she used to live. That other schools have tried to poach her says a lot about how successful she has been. She is approachable but firm, and her status is, in effect, on a par with that of the teachers.

There is a knock on the door. Gareth, from Year 8, enters. But there is nothing wrong - he simply wants to talk. So what would he tell children who are playing truant?

"You should come to school to get a good education, and then get a good job."

This is no carefully rehearsed platitude: Gareth believes it. Given the problems he has had - and they are many and complex - his words are testimony to what has been achieved at Kingswood.

"If there is tension between pupils it is not allowed to fester," says Ray Khan. "Where there are disputes between families, we get them into school and put them into a neutral situation, and we help them sort it out."

Lisa Stanley, an educational psychologist, has introduced a peer-group counselling scheme to combat bullying. It is now flourishing in 11 of Hull's comprehensive schools. She emphasises that the peer counsellors are trained to listen and advise rather than try to solve the problem. In one school, 15 Year 7 pupils were on the point of changing schools . Thanks largely to the counselling scheme, they have stayed put and are enjoying life in Year 8.

Kingswood's headteacher, Kevin Beaton, insists that people matter more than any system. Electronic registers have helped at his school, but his staff deal with pupils and try to forge relationships with children and their parents. And they try to find out precisely why pupils are playing truant.

His mantra to pupils is: "You can succeed: where you come from is immaterial." It is a mantra that Steve Graham also chants to Reeve primary pupils.

Kevin Beaton's closing remarks show just how much attitudes and expectations are changing in this part of Hull. "I've recently had parents telling me of their worries about the amount of debt their children will be building up... when they go on to university."

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