Glasgow is to deploy a wide range of strategies in a determined offensive to cut absence levels. The city, dubbed the truancy capital of Scotland, is increasingly concerned that taking parents to court is ineffective.
"We were heading for 800 parental prosecutions," Margaret Orr, senior education officer, told The TES Scotland after the subject was aired at the council's education committee last week. "Half of those were deserted because we could not prove the case and, within that number, half were thrown out when they reached court. The fines that were imposed had no effect on levels of attendance whatever, so the deterrent value was nil."
Mrs Orr said the city hoped to develop a more sensitive system involving schools, attendance councils and children's panel reporters. "Our aim is to deal with each case as appropriate not as a job lot. We also want our attendance officers to be more proactive and not just act as dog catchers. "
Glasgow's 33-strong attendance officer service faces a shake-up as the authority tries to integrate its work more closely with that of guidance teachers and other school staff. The officers are to be located in secondary schools but deployed by agreement between secondary, primary and special school heads.
The strategy will range from encouraging attendance and tackling school phobias to working with other agencies and establishing home-school contracts. Glasgow also sees its closures programme and the accompanying development of a more flexible curriculum as essential ingredients in making schools more attractive and driving up standards.
"Sporadic attendance is a major drain on the energies of staff as they struggle to make pupils catch up," Mrs Orr says. "It makes a significant contribution to teacher stress and can lead teachers to take the attitude that the pupils might as well stay away."
Scottish Office tables for the 1996-97 session show that Glasgow had by far the worst non-attendance problem, with 17 per cent of secondary pupils and 8 per cent of primary pupils recorded as authorised absences, which means they were approved by the school or condoned by parents.
The figures reached 26 per cent at Drumchapel High and 13 per cent at Annette Street and Oakgrove primaries, compared with national averages for authorised absences of 11 per cent in secondary and 5 per cent in primary.
Glasgow's education committee heard last week that 6,000 pupils were absent from school every day in the city, though not all were for unauthorised reasons. Kenny Gibson, an SNP councillor, said he had been told that a third of all housebreakings in Glasgow are carried out by truanting pupils.
John Young, the leader of the council's Tory group, has suggested that special courts presided over by justices of the peace should take over responsibility for prosecuting erring parents from the procurator fiscal. Malcolm Green, the city's education convener, promised officials would consider this as part of the wider strategy.
The education department aims to reduce prosecutions for truancy to around 250 a year, a number officials believe would be both manageable and effective. "We hope to restrict the numbers so that we stand a reasonable chance of success with those cases which do reach court," Mrs Orr said.