In the autumn of 2001 the DfES asked me to set targets for our school to reduce unauthorised absence. I replied, telling them I could meet any target they cared to mention (how about 0 per cent?) simply by accepting any and all reasons parents give for a child's absence: got up late, went to have her hair permedears pierced, had to buy shoes, dog needed to go to the vet, birthday.
The DfES assumes that unauthorised absence is the same thing as truancy and calls it that in the league tables. To most people, truancy implies that the parents think their child is at school and the child has gone somewhere else. It conjures up an image of children stealing from shopping centres and hanging around on street corners. In our school, as in most primary schools, there is very little truancy in that sense. About once a year a couple of children decide it is too nice a day to go to school, and go to the park instead. They are rounded up by playtime, to face punishments by their parents and teachers.
The dictionary I consulted defines a truant as a child who is regularly absent from school without permission. You would assume this means without their parents' permission. Our unauthorised absences occur where the parents are the ones keeping the child off school without my permission.
The governors and I have decided to take a hard line in an effort to change a culture of non-attendance. Our policy states that the only acceptable reasons for absence are genuine illness, medical appointments that cannot be made outside school hours, and family emergencies. I may authorise holiday absence up to 10 days in a school year, but only if the child's attendance the previous term has been 95 per cent.
Many of our children attend 100 per cent of the time, but for a few families education is not a priority and they have to be persuaded that their children need to be in school. These families have no one in work and no reason to get up in the morning. The educational welfare officer tries to help and, where parents dig in their heels, she starts procedures for prosecution. In order to prosecute it is important that I do not authorise the absences. Some parents are wise to this and say the children are ill when they aren't. So for 10 children last year we asked for doctors' notes if they were off sick.
The only way we can show our disapproval for the children's absences is not to authorise them. By doing this we shoot ourselves in the foot, since the Government judges the school for the parents' fecklessness. I was prepared to take the DfES's flak in the hope that something would change. What I didn't expect was to find our school on a name-and-shame list of the worst 200 primary schools for truancy and to have to spend a whole day in early December persuading the local press that this did not mean our pupils were out mugging old ladies.
Three years ago, I asked the DfES if there could be three categories of absence: authorised (legitimate reasons), unauthorised (truancy), and parentally condoned absence. The Government knows that parents condone absence, since we keep hearing that the majority of children found in truancy sweeps are with their parents.
In order to massage the Government's figures, schools are now under great pressure to authorise any and all absences, so long as they know the reason, however spurious. We have made a decision to stand firm because our policy is working. More children are coming to school more regularly and their parents are beginning to see that education might be of some value to them. Will someone please tell the DfES?
Cathy Byrne is headteacher of a primary in Hull