A wake-up call for the truant classes

7th March 2008 at 00:00
The headline "Truancy rate 'highest since 1997'" caught my attention this week on the BBC's website. The report says that an estimated 63,000 pupils are absent from school every day. It rightly points out that the continued rise in truancy rates - despite millions being spent on the problem - is partly a result of headteachers' concerted efforts to combat the problem: the more rigorously truancy is policed, the higher the number of absences recorded.

The trouble is that the difference between "unauthorised" absence and "truancy" is still not properly understood. We need to move away from the word truancy except in cases where we actually mean truancy ie. a pupil taking the decision not to come to school (or skipping out during the day) without the school or their parents' permission.

In our school and local authority, we agreed not to authorise absence for holidays or extended leave during term time. We are also strict about authorising the various reasons parents give to explain absences. This harsh line is intended to ensure that parents understand and appreciate the value of education, but it does not do the school any favours in the short term as it inflates our unauthorised absence figures. And we know that not everybody across the country plays by the same rules.

When I came to my present school nearly 12 years ago, overall school attendance was 88 per cent. Each incremental point up the scale has been due to our blood, sweat and tears. And, despite our best efforts, it has risen very slowly - so slowly, in fact, that I rashly promised I'd retire when our attendance rate reached 90 per cent! Happily, I had to back-pedal on this when we passed the 90 per cent benchmark. Now we are at around 92 per cent, with a target of 94 per cent.

In our first Ofsted inspection, attendance was a key issue, but the inspectors agreed that our practice was exemplary and they could not think of anything else we could be doing to improve matters. A similar conclusion was drawn in the next inspection, and I have no doubt that the same sort of sentiments will be expressed next time round.

But attitudes are changing. Years ago many parents would take their children off to their caravans on the coast on Friday and came back (if the weather wasn't too good) on Tuesday. This doesn't happen any more. Also very few now take extended leave during holiday time. So we are getting there. But we still have parents who keep their children at home for unacceptable reasons - "It's his birthday", "I need to buy him some new shoes", or in some cases "He won't get out of bed". We even have parents who insist on taking children on holiday during their GCSE exams, and no amount of pleading makes any difference.

A small number of pupils are school-phobic or have a long history of poor attendance. Usually, this is common to other members of their family. In such cases, a lot of individual and family support is needed. Then, of course, there are those who are just work-shy. Occasionally, this is due to bullying, but it is more usually down to pupils wanting to meet up with friends and have fun. They congregate in shopping centres - usually in pairs or small groups - and are normally brought back to us by the police.

We have lots of rewards for good attendance. We use Truancy Call to alert parents that their child is missing from school, we carry out truancy patrols, and we have even been known to visit homes and bring in children who are refusing to get out of bed. But there are no quick fixes, no matter how much money is spent.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher at George Green's Community School, Tower Hamlets.

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