Absenteeism is still strongly linked to disadvantage, but some schools are bucking the trend in spectacular style. Felicity Waters reports
Children living in deprived areas of Wales are far more likely to skip classes, but schools bucking the trend say poverty is no longer an excuse for truancy.
According to the latest Welsh Assembly figures on secondary school absenteeism, the link remains strong between disadvantage and disaffection.
In schools where more than 30 per cent of pupils were entitled to free meals, 13.7 per cent of sessions (half days) were missed in the last school year. This compared to 7.5 per cent in Wales's more affluent areas.
Overall, truancy or absences without permission rose from 1.6 to 1.7 per cent in 2003-4. Wales's two biggest cities recorded the highest levels, with Cardiff pupils skipping 3 per cent of sessions and Swansea youngsters 2.4.
But Merthyr Tydfil, one of the most deprived areas, recorded the best attendance and hit back at claims that poorer areas automatically produced more truants. The local education authority recorded a 0.5 per cent unauthorised absence rate last year and has just been voted the second best authority in England and Wales by the Audit Commission for its effectiveness in supporting schools to promote attendance.
Alan Pritchard, head of Cyfarthfa high school in Merthyr, said it made him angry when links were automatically made between deprivation and poor achievement. "In our school we talk about opportunity and never about disadvantage," he said.
"Yes, there is deprivation, but 91 of our pupils have just gone to the university of their choice and many others have gone into work."
Mr Pritchard said good attendance was about better use of strategies in schools to engage with young people, and not about what background they were from. At Cyfarthfa there are education welfare officers as well as a pastoral team that makes contact with parents on the first day of a child's absence.
Regular clinics are also held with parents to identify those who may be vulnerable to truancy.
"There is a direct link between what goes on in the classroom and good attendance," he said. "I am a great believer in making sure that the curriculum on offer is as interesting and meaningful as possible by mixing the vocational with the academic."
Mike Sullivan, head of Swansea university's national centre for public policy, which has worked for the Assembly on child poverty issues, said successful schools in "inauspicious areas" proved they could make a difference.
"When children are engaged, they tend to stay in school. We need to make learning fun because there is no fun being 14 in school with the reading age of a 10-year-old."
The Welsh Assembly government pledged to reduce overall absenteeism in schools to below 8 per cent by 2004. But its figures show there was only a slight decrease from 9.5 to 9.4 per cent this year.
England also missed its target, of a 10 per cent reduction in unauthorised absences this year, but recorded a lower overall absence rate (8.1) than Wales. Fairbridge, a charity which supports 13 to 25-year-olds in disadvantaged areas, sees the long-term effects of disaffection in the education system.
"School learning can be one-dimensional and a lot of youngsters are not engaged by that," said Tamara Wilding, spokesperson for Fairbridge in Cardiff. "They need to be given the opportunity to learn in a way that they can relate to and not feel excluded from the system."
But she said that while absenteeism was higher in poorer areas, it was often a symptom of other, more complex issues.
"Youngsters from deprived areas have more issues to deal with, such as unemployment at home or lack of parental support for education.
"Truancy is often a first step on a downward spiral but if they are labelled as poor, and therefore likely to truant, then they will probably live up to that."
Mal Davies, head of Willows high school in Cardiff, said community-focused schools were the way forward to re-engage disaffected youngsters.
"Parents often have other priorities, and if education didn't hold any meaning for them when they were growing up then they are not likely to encourage their children," he said.
"It's essential to re-engage with parents to convince them that education is vital."