Absent pupils down to parents
Figures released by the Welsh Assembly show that overall rates of absence have dropped slightly and are still lower than in secondary schools. But there is widespread concern that it is parents with a relaxed attitude towards school attendance who are sustaining the primary figures.
Absenteeism declined to 6.8 per cent of sessions (half days) from 7 per cent in 2002-3, while truancy, or absences without permission, rose from 0.6 to 0.7 per cent.
Cardiff had the most primary truants, with pupils skipping 1.4 per cent of sessions, although its overall absence figure was just below the average at 6.7 per cent. The figures compared favourably to secondary schools, where an average of 9.4 per cent of sessions were missed in 2003-4 and truancy rates peaked at 3.3 per cent.
Anne Rees, headteacher at Moorland primary school in Splott, Cardiff, said:
"I worry about the term 'truancy'. It implies that children are absent and the parents don't know. A lot of absence at primary level is actually condoned by parents.
"It's a big issue for us and it's very hard to get the message across. One boy was off on Monday morning for a haircut, after having had a week off for half-term. That's just unacceptable."
Some 50 per cent of children at Moorland have free school meals, an indicator of disadvantage which was strongly linked to absenteeism in the Assembly's figures. Cardiff education authority views parentally-condoned absence as a major problem and wants resources for early intervention.
A spokesperson said: "If we accept the figures at face value it means that we have a problem in persuading a small minority of parents of the value of regular attendance at school."
Professor Ken Reid, deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education, who writes on truancy, said the latest figures reinforced the need for early intervention.
"Children need encouragement to go to school," he said. "But sadly more and more parents, for all kinds of reasons, have their own agenda and don't prioritise the child and their educational needs. They want to get on and do their own thing."
But Margaret Morrissey, a spokesperson for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, called for greater support for parents.
"We would never condone parents keeping children away from school to go shopping, but there are times when a parent feels they can't cope. If that is the case, they need to be given some help and understanding."
Terry Williams, vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, and head of Litchard junior school in Bridgend, said parents rarely condoned absence.
"Parents don't say, 'yes, I'm happy my child's not in school'. There may be some family reasons where they can't cope. Their parenting skills sometimes aren't up to it."
The Assembly pledged to reduce overall absenteeism to below 8 per cent by 2004. The only county breaching that mark was Carmarthenshire, which saw 8.7 per cent of sessions missed even though truancy rates were among the lowest at 0.4 per cent.
The LEA was unable to explain this disparity, but Carmarthenshire's head of school support, Bryan Stephens, said he would be "giving due thought to the issue of authorisation of absences".