If you were asked to picture "a truant", you might automatically imagine a teenage boy. In the past, that would have been justified. In 1969, research indicated that there were nine boy truants for every girl. Yet today in England, Scotland and Wales we have a slight majority of girls who play truant.
It is just one illustration of how, too often, we consider issues around behaviour and school attendance to be "static" topics. They are not. In 1969, very few pupils were absent from primary school because of truancy. Today, about 36 per cent of all pupils start their histories of non-attendance at the primary phase. Bullying was rarely a consideration in cases of truancy 30 years ago. Today, in some parts of the UK, it accounts for a third of all cases. Cyber-bullying was unheard of ten years ago. Now, it is a growing problem which even applies to cases of teacher victimisation. Despite the huge potential for improving learning and teaching, the development of social networking sites comes at a price, as recent high-profile cases involving child abuse show.
Research evidence shows that more - and better - work is being done to manage behaviour and prevent truancy, but school attendance statistics are stubbornly difficult to improve and there are signs that unauthorised absence is worsening. What can schools do about pupils who do not even turn up?
In the 21st century, most schools recognise that managing pupils' behaviour and attendance involves more than just the teachers. Within schools, all staff, including learning school mentors, classroom assistants, education welfare officers and office staff, have a role to play in maintaining appropriate behavioural and attendance strategies.
Outside the school gates, there is a band of other potential "helpers". This continuum ranges from local authority support staff - educational psychologists, behavioural support staff, advisory teachers, special educational needs staff and so on - through to specialist medical, health, social services, voluntary agency staff as well as the police. How they work together varies depending on whether you are in Wales, England or Scotland (see panel, overleaf).
But whichever country you are in there is one critical constant: parents and carers should be a high priority on that list. Parents influence their children's attendance and behaviour for 52 weeks a year, not 38.
So their role is crucial. But here too, major changes have taken place. In 1969, around 2 per cent of parents divorced. Today, in some parts of the UK, a majority of new entrants to schools will not be living in the same marital home as their two parents by the time they leave school at 16 or 18. While marriage is not a prerequisite, most children need to feel secure in loving homes to progress to their optimum levels.
In the UK, around one in three school-age children now live in single-parent homes and many live in frequently changing circumstances. Research shows that this insecurity, as well as poverty, and poor parental role models, are often significant factors in cases of truancy, bullying and challenging behaviour. For example, research shows that parents who bully their children were often bullied by their parents. Pupils who truant often grow up in second, third, even, fourth-generation truancy families.
The societal changes taking place make it more difficult for schools to relate and communicate well with parents and carers. Language, cultural and contact difficulties abound. Some fathers, for example, feel disenfranchised and unable to fulfil their traditional roles with their children, possibly to the detriment of pupils' behaviour.
The new coalition Government in England has signalled its intention to put parents at the heart of its education policy. If so, there will be a host of new debates about information sharing with parents, what parents need to know, how to best liaise with them, how to utilise "no blame" approaches, how best to invite parents to be partners in problem-solving situations, and in action planning and managing challenging circumstances.
But what about those parents or carers who will not co-operate with schools or teachers? What about those whose own language competence, literacy and numeracy skills and self-esteem make them reluctant to visit schools or to enter into meaningful agreements with teachers? Research consistently shows that a minority of disaffected parents are reluctant to engage or re-engage with schools. After all, for some, it brings nothing but bad news.
Given this, it seems likely that more parental classes, home visits and whole-family fact-finding reports will become the order of the day, especially if parents are to be given more responsibilities in determining how schools are to be managed. (One of the challenges of introducing more parental power will be to ensure that the schools involved are not taken over by a particular clique, or by a small number of over-interested individuals, to the detriment of other groups of parents).
The attention will not solely be on parents. Schools will continue to be expected to bear some of the responsibility for young people who have been excluded - either in the direct sense that they have been expelled, or those who have become disengaged with learning.
Externally enforced changes in the national curriculum do appear to have had an impact on pupils' behaviour and attendance. The introduction of the national curriculum in the 1980s led to the universal development of a perceived "academic" syllabus, often at the expense of vocational opportunities. The able and most disaffected pupils suffered the most, arguably, from these changes. Certainly, it is a reason frequently cited as to why more girls now misbehave and get involved in bullying and truancy, all factors in the rise of girl gangs. And some bullying practices involving girls are even more invidious than those practised by boys.
As for pupils who may be expelled, the new Government has pledged to abolish exclusion appeals panels. What impact this will have remains unclear, and the panels are far from the only vexed area surrounding exclusions; we are already aware of an apparent rise in "unofficial" (sometimes illegal) exclusions, as well as the use - and misuse - of managed moves.
All these issues should be considered against the background of the broader debate that has grown between the rights of children and young people versus giving maximum support to heads and teachers in managing pupils' behaviour.
The policy of the previous UK government was to reduce the number of fixed-term and permanent exclusions whenever possible. The related strategy was to help pupils become more involved in decision-making through participation in school councils and even, in some parts of the UK, serving on teachers' and heads' appointment panels. The theory is that giving pupils more responsibility means they will behave, attend and participate better in schools and classrooms. Allied to this has been the move towards restorative justice practices in some parts of the UK, especially in Scotland.
Where to from here?
What are the implications of all this? It seems that there are six key areas which the new administration needs to consider.
First, a review needs to be taken into how the Children Act 2004 agenda sits with the current legislation on school attendance. A situation in which schools, local authorities and education welfare officers are encouraged to instigate proceedings against parents in the courts for their children's non-attendance, only to find there are other mitigating external agencies, cannot be sustained. Similarly, someone needs to ask: why have punishments for truancy never really been effective? This includes parenting orders, fines and jail sentences in their present guise. Are there ways to make them more effective, or alternative solutions worth attempting?
Second, we should ask whether there could be more scope for innovation and vocational opportunities in the school curriculum and, if so, whether these will improve behaviour and attendance? It will be interesting to learn what the results of the new foundation phase and 14-19 curriculum in Wales, including the Welsh Baccalaureate, will be in due course and whether similar or different schemes might work in England.
Third, how can schools and local authorities provide greater consistency in implementing regulatory practice and intervention and referral strategies? Why do some schools consistently exclude more pupils than others? Why do some experience many more acts of bullying and teacher victimisation than others?
Fourth, more research is needed into how to improve links and best practice between the key agencies, especially health, social services and education. It is self-evident that different training and philosophical regimes, information technology practice, issues of confidentiality and professional staff strategies in key areas are leading to some of the present impasse.
The shortage of trained social workers is a particular problem, as is consistency of professional support to needy families. Studies of parental groups show that many parents are confused by the conflicting advice, support and views expressed by professionals from the different agencies.
Fifth, it needs to be decided whether restorative justice practice is to be introduced into schools and, if so, how staff will be trained to maximise its potential. Will the new Government go down the restorative justice route or will it pull back? Will the Coalition keenly continue to promote children and young people's rights as much as its predecessor? Where will equal opportunities and health and safety sit in its list of priorities?
Sixth, the Government needs to understand that the constant changes within society, such as the consequences of familial breakdown, diversity and inappropriate role models (not least in the media and on television and in games and other software) are fuelling the undercurrent of anti-social behaviour, truancy and juvenile criminality. Understanding this and doing something about it are, however, two diametrically different tasks. Teachers are increasingly on the front line of managing pupils' challenging behaviour, bullying and truancy. They need to feel valued and protected. To achieve this appropriately, the causes of anti-social behaviour and truancy need to be dealt with as much as the end product.
Despite this, the Government needs to understand that staff in schools, in local authorities, in voluntary agencies and in the community are doing everything possible to improve and resolve difficult situations. But they need help and support. This is as much about moral leadership and finding more practical solutions as about more resources and manpower.
Without this lead, fragmentation may increase and truancy and challenging behaviour worsen.
Professor Ken Reid is former chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review in Wales.
OPEN TO INTERPRETATION: APPROACHES ACROSS THE UK
A range of policies exist to try to improve the behaviour and attendance of pupils, but these differ depending on where you work in the UK.
For example, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all follow their own strategies on improving school attendance although, to date, only Scotland has a different legal practice. Equally, the implementation of recent legislative acts are often carried out differently.
Significant examples can be found in the consequences of the Children Act 2004, the legislation put in to back up the Every Child Matters agenda. In England, local authorities responded by establishing children's services, an amalgamation of local education and social services departments for three- to 18-year-olds. In Wales, the pace of change has been slower, and the policies have had a different slant.
One example may be useful to illustrate the point. In England, the education welfare and social work services have been partly or wholly re-integrated into children's services. But in Wales, education welfare services have remained much as before, under the director of education.
This change alone has led to differences in interpretation. Why? Partly, it is because social workers and social services are trained to work on the whole child and family. By contrast, the role of educational welfare officers is to assist schools and local authorities to manage pupils' attendance, in accordance with several previous acts.
Whereas, educationally, the duty of local authorities is to bring parents or carers to court to face potential penalties if they fail to ensure their children attend school regularly, the philosophy, culture and training within social services is very different.
Social workers are trained to have regard for the whole circumstances of the child and family before making key decisions, including their human rights. Therefore, many social workers and their family support teams are less sympathetic to, for example, fining or jailing a parent for their child's truancy.
So children's services in England are now faced with a difficult balancing act. On one hand, they have to comply with the law on school attendance. On the other, despite central Government policy and pressure, they may find it more difficult to gain local agreement to take some non-attendance cases to court, even when this might have been automatic ten years ago.
One local authority last year processed more than 450 cases for potential court action on school attendance. Once all the case reviews were completed, only two were taken to court. So the reality for most parents or carers of regular non-attenders is a diet of regular warnings and threats either by letter or in person from a range of potential sources.
In some other ways, however, practitioner thinking in England, Scotland and Wales is very similar. Most people now accept that interventions in cases of truancy, bullying and disruptive behaviour often took place much too late. Therefore, following reports such as the National Behaviour and Attendance Review (NBAR) in Wales, politicians, policymakers and practitioners are beginning to prioritise earlier intervention strategies, better multi-agency co-operation, co-ordinated national literacy and numeracy policies and more and better targeted one-to-one support. For example, one of the Welsh Assembly government targets established by the NBAR report is that no child (within the mainstream ability range) should leave primary school without the functional ability to read and write - a challenging target indeed.