Big picture absent again from attendance tables

19th January 2001 at 00:00
The eighth set of tables on school attendance and absence shows the same stagnant picture as in previous years - and has attracted the same degree of scepticism about the meaning of the figures.

Primary absenteeism, both authorised and unauthorised, is running at 5 per cent for the third year in succession. The rate in secondary schools is just under 11 per cent, also unchanged. As always, the regional pattern varies: primary pupil absences range from 3.6 per cent in Scottish Borders to 7.2 per cent in Glasgow, while the secondary picture goes from 6 per cent absence in Orkney to 16.5 per cent in Glasgow.

Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, described the position as "an encouraging, stable picture". Brian Monteith, his Tory opposite number, suggested it reflected little noticeable progress and was a "singular failure" of the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition to keep its promise of reducing exclusions and truancy by a third - although that pledge is not for redemption until 2003.

Mr McConnell acknowledged that, while progress towards minimising absence in primary schools had been good, "further substantial improvement" is required in secondary schools. The figures represent the equivalent of the average primary pupil missing two weeks out of a 38-week session and the average secondary pupil four weeks.

The new task group on school discipline, which he chairs, would give "further impetus" to projects designed to raise attainment among pupils through improving their attendance, Mr McConnell said. It was up to parents and the wider community to lend schools a hand.

Mr McConnell has decided to remove data on exclusions from this year's tables because he wants to make a separate announcement, and a bigger political splash, later in the year.

Another change this year is the decision to publish the names of the 10 primary and secondary schools which have recorded the greatest improvement in absence rates. But this has singularly failed to make an impact.

The primaries are virtually all small schools where minor fluctuations in numbers can mak a major difference. So Foula primary in Shetland, which has two pupils, is top of the improvement league with a drop in total absence from 13 per cent to 5 per cent. Another primary, with 18 pupils, recorded a 7 per cent fall because three pupils left but were kept on the register for a month.

Top of the pops in the secondary sector is Keith Grammar in Morayshire where absenteeism fell from 13 per cent in 1998-99 to 6 per cent in 1999-2000. John Aitken, the head, was taken aback to be told by The TES Scotland that he had outshone the rest but was totally mystified as to the reasons - apart from the hard work of staff and good relationships with local families.

The attendance blackspot continues to be Glasgow. Of the 10 worst primaries and secondaries, eight are in the city. But it also has two secondaries in the top 10, Shawlands Academy and Lourdes Secondary, as well as Darnley primary. Ken Goodwin, head at Shawlands, paid tribute to the hard work of his guidance team and attendance officer. "We are delighted that this has paid off and hope to improve further," he said.

Mr McConnell commended these schools, adding: "Others must emulate them now to ensure that the continued focus that targets bring will be reflected in progress over the coming year."

The reliability of the figures was challenged, however, even by prominent Government supporters. Paul Williamson, executive member for education in Edinburgh, repeated the familiar refrain that different authorities have varying ways of recording absence and attendance.

"Several secondary schools have seen their authorised absence rise this year due to the fact that study leave is now counted as authorised absence where previously it counted as attendance," Mr Williamson said.

"Unauthorised absence has also risen. Again this was expected because the changes in procedures have resulted in some schools being more stringent with the allocation of codes after instances of unexplained absence. Edinburgh's experiences clearly demonstrate the difficulties of trying to compare different schools."

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