The Government instituted an annual survey of school attendance and truancy because there was too little information about the extent of non-attendance and the reasons behind it. The published information, however, is less than enlightening. It suffers from a continuing inability or unwillingness of schools and education authorities to collect statistics on the same basis. Different interpretations of authorised and unauthorised absence persist.
Parents, for whom the exercise is meant to be conducted, are left puzzled. Is there a qualitative difference between keeping Johnny at home during his Standard grade year to help with granny's shopping and having him in the house because of so-called "exam leave"? Teachers would say yes but might be reluctant to spell out the distinction to sceptical parents.
Non-attendance comes in various forms. The only way to get beyond the uninformativeness of the annual statistics is to go into schools and talk to pupils and teachers. That is what several researchers have sought to do, most recently from the Scottish Council for Research in Education. They find that truancy is a niggling but not a crippling problem. There is no crisis, despite what ministers might like to believe.
The fact that allegedly greater indiscipline within schools has apparently not been accompanied by a rising incidence of truancy is not in itself grounds for complacency. Pupils who are away from school - including those with whom parents collude - are by definition not at their lessons. Assuming that lessons increase learning and enhance the chance of doing well in exams, absence is therefore a disservice to pupils' education. It is hardly surprising that the SCRE's research found a correlation between non-attendance and poor Standard grade results. None the less, as the research team hastens to add, other factors affect attainment.
Boredom, dislike of a teacher or a subject, difficulty in keeping up with work all contribute. The Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University has embarked on a Government-funded initiative to see what can be done to reduce absences. As with research into the extent of the problem, so with the search for solutions. Progress is likely only at school level. Pupils themselves hold the key. They are being asked whether they truant and how often. The reasons are being studied, as must the incentives for turning up each day and attending lessons.
A sense of self-esteem is central to success. Pupils who feel undervalued may be tempted to stay in bed or make for the shopping mall. But in seeking to encourage good attendance, teachers and parents should not disguise the fact that everyone has days when they would prefer to stay away and when work presents more obstacles than clear pathways. As Brian Boyd, co-director of the Quality in Education Centre, said at the launch of the attendance initiative, what schools are after is "caring with a hard edge".