Artful dodgers bunk off;News;News amp; Opinion

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Absenteeism is running at a steady rate of four weeks a year per secondary pupil and two weeks in primary. Neil Munro reports

THE SCOTTISH Executive still has to make major inroads into pupil absenteeism.

The latest school-by-school tables, published on Tuesday, show the level has remained virtually unchanged since the information was first released in 1993-94 - or "stable", as the HMI audit unit describes it.

In 1998-99, the primary absence rate was six per cent, for the third year running, the equivalent of two school weeks for every primary pupil.

The secondary school rate of 11 per cent , amounting to four weeks off for each pupil, was the same as the previous year.

Targets set by ministers for 2001 envisage the absence rate reduced to nine days per primary pupil and 18 days per secondary pupil - modest reductions over three years of a day and a half in primary and three and a half days in secondary.

Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, welcomed the commitment education authorities and schools had already shown in setting targets to tackle absence. Some schools had already proved that large reductions in absence are possible, he said, "and others must now follow their example."

The tables for last session show, as usual, wide variations between education authorities, schools and stages of schooling. Once again, most absences are "authorised"- almost all in primary and 90 per cent in secondary. This means they were sanctioned by parents or accepted by the school.

There is very little variation at primary level from the national education authority average of five per cent. But the total secondary absence rate of 11 per cent ranges from six per cent in Orkney and Shetland to 18 per cent in Glasgow.

There are also major differences between schools. Drumchapel High in Glasgow authorised 27 per cent absenteeism, the highest rate of any secondary school in Scotland. This compares with 17 per cent for Glasgow as a whole and means that pupils were off for the equivalent of over a quarter of the session - 10 weeks out of 38.

Drumchapel's total absence rate of 28 per cent has stayed unchanged since it was established in 1994-95. An HMI report in 1996 paid tribute to the school's efforts to improve its attendance. The effort has continued, yet the figures have remained the same. Wilson Blakey, the head, says that measures have included both monetary and voucher rewards for good and improved attendance, and negotiated timetables for individual pupils.

"The position continues to be of concern both to the school and the community," Mr Blakey said. "But we have done a lot and we intend to do a lot more." The school hopes to gain the status of a new community school next year. That will allow it to reinforce the inter-agency working it does at present through a joint support team including psychologists and social workers.

Tealing in Angus is the primary where more pupils are off by agreement than any other, at 14 per cent. The reason is the number of children from travelling families who attend, around a quarter of last session's 40-odd roll. The Scottish Executive defines "sanctioned, extended absence in relation to children of travelling families" as authorised.

Truancy and other unauthorised absences are worst at Our Lady of the Assumption primary in Glasgow, where six per cent of the pupils were off compared with an average of zero for the city's primaries. But the school's authorised absence rate, at four per cent, is almost half of Glasgow's seven per cent primary average.

In the secondary sector, Drummond Community High in Edinburgh held the record, at nine per cent, for pupils going absent without leave last session, three times the city figure for secondary schools and nine times the Scottish average.

Frank McGrail, the head, said Drummond last session they had taken in over 20 "chronic non-attenders" from other schools who accounted for almost half the unexplained absences. He said they were stepping up efforts to track down missing pupils and last session's figures would prove "a one-off."

By contrast six education authorities - East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Shetland, Western Isles, Midlothian and the Western Isles - claimed not to have any primary pupils off without permission last session. And the first four of these said no secondary pupils had dodged school either.

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