Calling time on truancy

7th December 2007 at 00:00
Keeping a truant in the classroom is a tall order. A revolutionary project in Torquay is helping pupils to find their own solutions, with promising results, says Craig Brennan-Osment.Suzie was consistently late for school. Teachers at Torquay Community College saw the 16-year-old as unmotivated and not achieving her potential. Her attendance was falling and letters home were causing friction with her family.

When she was referred to me, she seemed directionless and she had little confidence in doing well in forthcoming exams. Asked what the first tiny step would be towards improving her attendance, she said that changing settings on her alarm clock to five minutes earlier would make all the difference.

It was her solution - not mine. She had found a small but effective way of beginning to tackle her low attendance - and it worked. Over the next few weeks her attendance went up from a low of 58 per cent to 74 per cent.

As she achieved new goals, such as getting coursework done, her confidence improved and she began to talk about possibly going to university. Her outlook became much more positive and her aspirations higher than before.

Suzie's is one of the many success stories to come out of the Solution Focused Coaching Service, where I am a coach and trainer. It is an innovative scheme piloted in the Torbay area since 2005 and supported by education welfare officers.

The coaching, set up as part of the local authority's Early Intervention drive, aims to nip issues such as low self-esteem, truancy and inappropriate anger in the bud.

The coaching, which was developed in the US, allows pupils to find their own solutions by looking at their futures, rather than revisiting entrenched problems. The approach does not try to give advice or tell pupils what is expected of them. Instead it helps children make a connection for themselves between what they wish to achieve and the skills and strengths they have, which may help them get there, even if it takes many small steps.

Anyone not familiar with Torbay, a small unitary authority serving a population of about 133,000, will probably be surprised that a scheme such as this is needed on the English Riviera. But the yachts in the harbour, Victorian villas and swaying palm trees only serve to disguise the fact that Torbay is one of the most deprived areas in the country.

The area has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the country and school attendance is well below the national average. Workers in the South- west often earn lower wages than other areas of the country and much of the work available is in the tourist or hotel industry. And a large transient population depends on benefits and often lives in poor-quality accommodation. These factors create the potential for poor outcomes for children and young people - and challenges for its social, health and education services.

In 2005, a colleague and I piloted the scheme in four Torbay secondary schools to help improve school attendance levels and reduce truancy.

Recent research shows that a persistent truant can cost society pound;44,000 over a lifetime. If the scheme could prevent even two or three children becoming persistent truants, it would have paid for itself.

In its first two years, the service received more than 750 referrals from teachers, support staff and pupils. Two-thirds of those whose coaching was evaluated, like Suzie, saw a rise in their attendance.

Sarah, a Year 8 pupil, summed up how the scheme works after two sessions: "It's a bit like focusing on what you can do, and not worrying about what you can't, isn't it?"

The original American scheme allows clients to explore in detail their "preferred future" or find a solution rather than focusing on problem areas. We adapted this approach for Torbay schools to allow pupils to set their own goals and targets for the future and to identify resources and strengths that they already have.

Teenagers can be a difficult group to work with as they often do not respond well to "external motivators", such as teachers telling them what to do and parents saying what is best for them.

Coaching sessions that allow teenagers to find their internal motivation to do things a certain way or behave in a particular fashion have proved to be a great success. For example, during the sessions they will discuss the personal benefits school brings them, or the quality of adult life they would like to have.

They are encouraged to ask themselves where they want to get to and what is in it for them. What difference will it make to their lives? Who will notice when things get better? This was very different from the traditional threat of what punishment they will get if they don't do their homework or what the teacher may do to them if they don't behave in class. The detailed descriptions they come up with mean that the desired outcomes are much more likely to happen.

As Steve de Shazer, who along with Insoo Kim Berg, developed Solution Focused Brief Therapy, says: "If you don't know where you want to get to, chances are you will end up somewhere else." This seems to be an empowering experience for children who are able to gain confidence from the idea that they are able to influence positive change for themselves. It can also give adults a break from the responsibility of having to know and provide all the answers.

The coaching service has now been made a permanent part of the Early Intervention section of Torbay's Children's Services. It has received more than 1,000 referrals, mainly from teachers who have seen the benefits first-hand.

Some 66 per cent of year heads report that the coaching has improved children's behaviour, with a further 17 per cent saying behaviour was much improved.

The service now has the capacity to offer a training and consultation service to primary schools and other staff. Under a separate initiative, children who are peer mentors or playground buddies in primary schools are being coached in solution-focused skills to help reduce bullying and resolve playground conflicts.

A coaching programme carried out in the summer term for pupils about to take GCSEs is also being evaluated to assess the possible impact on attainment and motivation to learn.

Solution-focused coaching offers children the chance to learn that they can affect positive change. It is hoped that developing this outlook in children will help produce confident, positive-thinking young people who can resolve many everyday problems on their own before they have to deal with bigger issues in the future

Craig Brennan-Osment is a Solution Focused coach and trainer based at Barton Primary School in Torquay

Truancy factfile

2.4 per cent of more than 3 million secondary pupils account for more than half of all unauthorised absence.

Pupils who are eligible for free school meals are almost three times more likely than other pupils to play truant.

Children of travellers, black Caribbean pupils and white pupils had the highest rate of persistent absence. White pupils were also above the national average for overall and persistent absence, while pupils of Asian, black and Chinese ethnic origin were below the national average.

The overall absence rate for girls is 0.27 per cent higher than for boys.

Average absence nationally for secondary schools is just over 8 per cent of half days.

12,681 parenting orders and fines were issued last year to parents of persistent truants.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) announced in March that new technology will allow an electronic register to automatically text or call parents within minutes of discovering a child is absent from school.

Pupils can also be sent a text to warn them that their absence has been noted.

Source: DCSF

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