WHEN MICHAEL, now Lord, Forsyth ordered schools and local authorities to compile figures for authorised and unauthorised absences, he intended that information would lead to action.He was right to feel that the lack of statistics on a fundamental requirement for attainment -that pupils turn up- was indefensible. And publicity has led headteachers to try vigorously to reduce the toll of absences. The problem is that six years of tables have made almost no difference (see page six). For example, if secondary pupils need on average four weeks off per session, either the Scottish health record is even worse than we thought, or parents and teachers must stop colluding in absences. It is authorised absences that are causing worry, much more than unauthorised blatant truancy.
From the outset the statistics have been plagued by an imprecise distinction between authorised and unauthorised. Some worthwhile activities may have to be recorded as "authorised absence", and most pupils get colds, flu and childhood ailments. A small minority stay at home for acceptable family reasons. But too many parents are ready to sign for a day off without good cause. The rash of price cutting in off-season holiday flights is bound to encourage some to take children away in term-time. By and large teachers turn a blind eye to such absenteeism, although some will be more outspoken when a pupil is preparing for external exams.
Social inclusion policies, new community schools, Excellence Fund projects - they may show success where media publicity and schools' efforts under previous national attendance initiatives have failed. But don't be too optimistic.