TRUANCY AND exclusions have proved to be two of the toughest education problems for the Government to tackle. Despite a decade of reforms, including tough parenting contracts and power for councils to pursue parents through the courts, the number of pupils missing school remains worryingly high.
Earlier this year, government statistics painted a worse picture than had been expected of children skipping classes. An estimated 43,000 played truant every day last year.
Figures released last week showed permanent exclusions last year totalled 9,170, down by 3 per cent on the previous year. But temporary exclusions were up by 4 per cent to 343,840.
What appears to be an intractable problem could be solved, and billions of pounds saved, with better early intervention in schools, says New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), a charity which advises organisations on effective charitable donations.
It said lower earnings, greater pressure on benefit payments and higher crime mean each truant costs society pound;44,000 over their lifetime. With an estimated 200,000 persistent truants, that adds up to pound;8.8 billion. However, NPC said, a third of the money lost to hardcore truancy could be saved through intervention schemes.
Two other charities, School-Home Support and The Learning Challenge, have enjoyed considerable success at little cost.
School-Home Support provides full-time support workers for primary and secondary schools to tackle behavioural issues and problems stemming from family difficulties, including domestic violence and substance abuse. The workers, who cost a school about pound;30,000 a year each, provide a link between school, home and other agencies.
Jayne Obeng, a spokeswoman for the charity, admitted not all headteachers want to commit money that could otherwise be spent on a teacher. "Saving money for society is not the overriding concern of most heads," she said. "But many realise they need someone who can liaise with other agencies and see problems through."
Researchers at NPC estimated that for every pound;1 spent on School - Home Support, there is a net saving of pound;1.24 and they calculated the charity can prevent a quarter of exclusions. This would represent a net saving of pound;90 million a year, which is more than all the secondary schools in the UK spend on books in a year, they said.
The Learning Challenge, which is based in the North East, runs classes targeted at different types of truants. Sessions are designed for children with behavioural problems, those who do not engage with the curriculum and those who are vulnerable due to issues at home.
Calculations show that for each pound;1 spent, the charity makes pound;11.60 in savings. Its success rate at stopping truancy has been calculated to be 34 per cent. It costs about pound;12,000 to get the scheme established, but after that teachers are able to run it, making it financially sustainable in the long-term.
If all truancy was tackled in this way, it would save pound;250m a year, which is enough to pay for an extra teacher in every secondary school.
Michael O'Brien, headteacher at Washington technology college in Tyne and Wear, has worked with the Learning Challenge in two schools over the past four years. At his former school in Middlesbrough, the attendance rate improved from 88 per cent to 93 per cent over four years. "It has to be one of a number of strategies but it can have a real impact," he said.
"Attendance needs to be made a central part of a school improvement plan to make sure it is given the weight and financial support it deserves."
'It works really well'
Headteacher Mark Barnett (above) believes that having a full-time worker from School-Home Support on staff has freed 20 per cent of his time at Westfield community primary in York.
Carol Ashby (above, right) oversees more than 700 interventions with families each year, ensuring they have access to whatever support they need to keep the children in school. She advises families on various issues, including housing support, drug and alcohol abuse and family breakdown.
Mr Barnett used to have a teaching assistant do a similar job, but when she moved on, he turned to School-Home Support for its expertise.
"Before that, it was me trying to deal with those things," said Mr Barnett. "I could spend a whole day, or even a week, dealing with more serious problems. Now I have someone else to do that, who can always see things through to the end."
He said the pound;30,000-a-year home-school support scheme had worked "incredibly well" and improved the attendance of at least 15 pupils over the past year. "My whole philosophy is that if there's a family issue that stops a child coming to school, then we should help with it," he said.
Photograph: Sam Atkins