A licence not to truant?

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education

The latest statistics on school attendance for Wales have provoked a great deal of interest for several reasons. The secondary absenteeism rate rose for the first time since 2001, although levels of unauthorised absence (truancy) continued to fall.

In 20056, 9.8 per cent of all half-day sessions were missed by secondary-aged pupils, an increase of 0.4 per cent. This amounts to every pupil missing more than 15 days schooling a year, either through authorised or unauthorised absence.

These data need to be put into their proper context. A degree of natural caution is always advisable when interpreting official statistics, and particularly so this year. The methodology for collecting the figures was changed and some schools may have experienced difficulties in interpreting the new guidance. There were also unusually high outbreaks of illness during the reporting period, for example the E.coli outbreak in South Wales last autumn.

Some local authorities are beginning to apply zero-tolerance registration practices towards pupils who take term-time holidays (something which probably requires more consistent application by local education authorities across Wales).

Finally, many schools have been introducing electronic registration procedures. Research suggests these can lead to an initial increase in recorded absence, possibly because it is easier to collect and analyse data more accurately.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, it remains a concern that around one in 10 pupils continues to miss secondary education on a daily basis. This is despite the many high-profile initiatives being delivered by schools, LEAs and by education welfare officers and learning mentors.

Clearly, there have to be other reasons why so many pupils are turned-off from attending school regularly.

The Assembly government has made improved school attendance a priority, and to some extent has been successful. Since 1998, overall levels of non-attendance have been reduced by 0.6 per cent - although unauthorised absence (truancy) has worsened by 0.2 per cent over the same period.

One of the greatest difficulties with non-attendance is that the phenomenon requires multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary solutions. This means involving all the key stakeholders - schools, LEAs, caring agencies and the parents and pupils themselves. This is not an easy task.

Increasingly, some young people are proving resistant to the authority of teachers and dedicated caring professionals. Some young adolescents engage in a shadowy sub-culture, manifesting a range of disaffected behaviour, anger, aggression and intolerance.

Equally, the anti-educational stances of some parents and carers hardly sets the best example. Often, instead of parents helping schools and staff like education welfare officers, they go out of their way to be as perverse as possible.

Many persistent non-attenders emanate from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds and are among our most vulnerable young people. Nevertheless, professionals require and deserve the support of parents when attempting to help their needy children overcome the barriers to learning which they can face.

This is why some European governments have decided to introduce zero tolerance policies. For example, two years ago the Portuguese government introduced a scheme whereby pupils who truanted, dropped out of school or who failed to complete their school leaving certificate satisfactorily were banned from taking their driving tests until the required academic standard had been achieved.

The latest results show a rise in attendance and in pupils achieving their leaving certificate. It seems pupils in Portugal value being able to drive so much that they are even prepared to attend school regularly. Is there a lesson here for us?

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