Back to school battle

29th September 2006 at 01:00
As truancy figures improve in Wales, Ken Reid asks if England's tough measures are right for us

The publication of the worst set of truancy figures ever for England should make us sit up and think about how we manage pupils' non-attendance in Wales. There are some serious lessons to be learnt.

In England, 36 per cent of all non-attendees begin truanting in primary schools. Compare this with 25 years ago when truancy in primary schools was almost non-existent. Non-attendance in primary schools in England rose by 7 per cent within a year. These statistics come just a month after primary test results fell well below government targets.

The Department for Education and Skills's response is to introduce a new penal scheme for parents. Headteachers in the 1,000 worst-performing primary schools will be asked to draw up a list of persistent truants.

Their parents or carers will be given 12 weeks to improve their children's attendance or face automatic prosecution and a pound;50 fine.

The latest statistics show that when local authorities and the DfES got tough with low-attending schools, pupil attendance rose by 27 per cent.

Sadly this was matched by a corresponding rise in non-attendance in the remaining secondary schools in England, which lay outside the scheme.

Despite the National Audit Office (NAO) and New Philanthropy Capital (NYC) reports published last year, which showed that pupils' attendance in England has not improved in the past 20 years, irrespective of the range of initiatives and spending (approximately 883 million every year), the DfES has decided to throw pound;50 million into yet another new scheme.

This pilot project will establish a range of newly-trained parent support advisers in selected schools to target the families of potential and actual truants whose children are aged between eight and 13.

It seems the lessons of the NAO and NYC reports are not being learnt. The DfES needs to understand that the Government has to get a grip on the causes of non-attendance. These include the poverty gap and the increase in bullying in some schools.

The children's commissioner for Wales, Peter Clarke, has labelled bullying as the single greatest problem facing schools in Wales in his recent annual report. The low levels of competence and the general lack of parenting skills shown by some new parents, including single parentscarers, is another burgeoning issue.

The high levels of pupils with special needs, including literacy and numeracy deficiencies, should be another cause for concern, especially as this is the group from which many truants emanate.

Even the presentation skills of the DfES should be open for question. On the very day it was claiming a success in raising attendance in the 200 worst-performing schools, it also suggested, in a separate announcement, that the best-performing schools should take over the running and management of the worst.

Failure to improve would lead to school closures. And how were these worst-performing schools to be selected? By their high rates for non-attendance and low levels of academic achievement? Oops.

Some leading teaching unions and heads' associations have expressed their own concerns about some of the DfES tactics. The relationship between schools and parents and carers is never easy when dealing with non-attendance issues.

In fact, one of the hidden reasons for the rise in pupil non-attendance is that some pupils are increasingly travelling to their schools from different directions almost daily, having spent different nights with their mother, father, grandparents andor at friends homes in euphemistically-called "sleepovers".

What are the lessons for Wales? First, some potential good news. Since data on school attendance was first collected, Wales has always had higher rates of non-attendance than England. Partly, this was caused by there being a higher proportion of pupils emanating from poorer working-class backgrounds in Wales than in England.

Recently, partly as a result of Assembly government initiatives and the endeavours of the Assembly's Task Force, the gap between England and Wales has closed significantly. It may well be that attendance in Welsh schools will soon be better than in England, especially in primaries. If so, this would be a major step forward.

Second, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. What would be the benefit of introducing DfES-inspired measures in Wales? These might include automatic spot fines for parents for their children's non-attendance in selected schools.

Third, are there better new initiatives worth trying? Could we expand our alternative curriculum and out-of-school schemes? Could we do more to help failing or deprived parents or carers, pupils with special needs andor those with literacy or numeracy difficulties?

Finding answers to these challenges will help to determine whether Wales can further raise pupil attendance and create opportunities for the long-term personal and employment success of all its future school-leavers.

Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education

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Email: 029 2066 0207

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Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, Caerdydd CF11 9LJ. Ebost: Ffacs 029 2066 0207

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