WHEN DID you last hear someone say that a child had played truant? There was a time, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, when the British public still seemed to have romantic notions about truancy. Pupils who "played hookey" hid their uniforms and satchels in dustbins and scampered off to fish for trout or pick illicit apples. That, at least, was the mythology. The reality has always been rather different.
The Government's pound;500 million drive to cut the number of truants by a third should therefore be welcomed (page 6). It probably will not prove feasible to levy pound;5,000 fines on the parents of persistent truants, but the idea of transferring the budget for education welfare officers from local authorities to headteachers has some merit. It has never made sense to have several EWOs dealing with a single secondary school.
Ministers' enthusiasm for electronic school registers, swipe cards and pager links with truants' parents is also understandable given the success of pilot projects. But, of course, if the Government is to close all the truants' exit routes and slash the number of permanent exclusions there is a danger that some secondary schools will become pressure-cookers.
The recruitment of 800 "learning mentors" to ease pupils' educational and personal problems will obviously help. Placing difficult young people in specialist units within their own school - rather than in distant referral centres - has also been shown to yield dividends (financial as well as human). And the promised raft of work-related courses should give many teenagers more reason to get up in the morning.
But we must not be lulled into thinking that we have all the answers. The fact that about 50,000 youngsters will be out of school for no good reason today indicates that the battle against truancy and disaffection is far from over.
As always, the success of this Government's strategies will be largely determined by the response of individual staff members. The most rational set of plans will fail unless there are enough committed teachers, mentors, classroom assistants, counsellors and other support staff who are prepared to take a special interest in their most troubled and troublesome pupils. What such children need - even more than a relevant and interesting curriculum - is the feeling that at least one adult in this world understands them, believes in them and cares about their well-being.