Damned by unreliable statistics;School management

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Victoria Drive, one of several Glasgow secondaries threatened with closure, has been called Scotland's top school for truancy. But the label is based on meaningless figures, argues headteacher David Nicholson.

For a few days in December the Scottish Office publication of attendance and absence figures in Scottish schools aroused the interest of our national media in the affairs of Victoria Drive Secondary School. What was of such national interest was not the fact that the school - for the third successive year - was showing an absence rate of 19 per cent and was within 1 per cent of the average absence recorded in Glasgow.

That very humdrum point is of very little interest to anyone outwith the school. But it seemed Victoria Drive was news, because it topped the league for recorded "unauthorised absence". Now there's a claim to fame - to be labelled as Scotland's top school for truancy.

Two years ago, our 19 per cent absence was made up of 18 per cent authorised absence and 1 per cent unauthorised, as opposed to this year's figure of 9 per cent authorised and 10 per cent unauthorised. Does this mean two years of unrestrained truancy erupting out of an attendanceabsence pattern typical of the country as a whole?

Well, it is of course a possibility, but one which a glance at another of the audit unit's publications makes scarcely credible. In Examination Results in Scottish Schools 1995-97, Victoria Drive is shown to have increased the percentage of S4 gaining five or more Standard grades, from 80 per cent in 1995 to 85 per cent in 1997. Post-appeals it is 86 per cent - 5 per cent above the city average.

It is strange indeed, if there has been such rampant truancy, that so many S4 pupils have not only turned up to sit exams but have also completed the essential internal elements of the courses.

If further evidence is required that something is going right at the school, the latest figures for leavers' destinations indicate that only 16 per cent of our leavers were consigned to that euphemistically named category of "other known destinations", against a city average of 24 per cent.

It is, of course, too much to expect either the members of the media or the public who receive their offerings to cross-check data in this way and ask the questions which follow from such an exercise. But is it too much to expect a different approach from the education authorities throughout the country and from the audit unit itself?

In response to last year's publication, I wrote to HM chief inspector McGlynn to raise some concerns over the validity of the data presented. The reply which was received was interestingly worded, coming as it did from the director of the audit unit: "Councils and schools are mature institutions and we work with them on the basis of mutual trust." In how many other spheres of public service or in the private sector, I wonder, do those charged with an audit function base their final published data on a mutuality of trust with those who are the subject of audit?

The Education Minister, Brian Wilson, like Raymond Robertson before him, has emphasised the importance of regular school attendance and is fully aware of the correlation between frequent absence and low achievement. It is therefore essential that there is this regular annual scrutiny of attendance and absence patterns across the nation.

But urgent attention must be paid to how that information is presented. As matters stand, the conclusions from the data are that nowhere in Scotland - except perhaps Victoria Drive, Kirkland High in Fife, Sanday Junior High in Orkney and Musselburgh Grammar in East Lothian - is truancy a serious problem.

What there would seem to be, is a problem that increases spectacularly as our young people mature. In primary school, in those years when it might have been thought that most absence would result from the characteristic illnesses of childhood, there is a consistent picture of around 5 per cent absence, all of it classified as authorised. There is a similar consistency at the secondary stage with absence running at 11-12 per cent, though with all but 1 per cent listed as authorised, there is an intriguing contrast with primary.

Why should twice as much absence be authorised for secondary as primary pupils? This becomes a still more interesting question when the pattern through different stages in the secondary school is looked at.

Nationally, the authorised absence of S1 pupils is 7.1 per cent; for S4 and S5 pupils it is 13.5 per cent. Illness is not the only criterion set out for authorising an absence, but unless we assume some most unlikely patterns of medical treatment, domestic crises, family bereavement, it is the cause most likely to pertain. Is our population of 15-and 16-year-olds so much less hardy than our 11-and 12-year-olds?

At local level within Victoria Drive our recorded authorised absence operates across the year groups within a tight band, ranging from 7.9 per cent to 10.1 per cent. What varies spectacularly is the unauthorised figure for 3.5 per cent in S1 to 19.6 per cent in S5 and in the latter case a substantial component is truancy with not a few of those S5 Christmas leavers making no show at all from August to Christmas.

Is Victoria Drive really alone in experiencing such levels of truancy? Are there truly legitimate reasons for some other schools authorising absence levels of up to 97 half-days per pupil out of 105 such half-days in total? (We have 71 half-days per pupil, of which we have authorised 34.) Of all the annual publications from the audit unit, the one on attendance and absence alone lacks a sure foundation on reliable data. It should not, in its present form, be taken seriously and it is not by those within schools who appreciate the absurdity of the authorisedunauthorised division as it operates in practice.

We are given each year a document which undermines the credibility of the audit unit and which diverts the attention of the media away from highlighting the real issues of non-attendancelow attainment to a shock horror side show which may this year have given this headteacher two days of inappropriate media attention.

But - and this is much more important - it also reinforces the complacency of parents in all those schools where almost all absences have been given respectability with the stamp of authorisation, by school, by education authority and by Government.

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