How to beat the truants

30th September 2005 at 01:00
There is a popular funfair arcade game which must have been the inspiration for our current policy on truancy. You may have played it. A mole will suddenly emerge from one of several holes in a flat board. You try to smack it on the head with a small fat cosh, while the machine counts your score.

It is a therapeutic game, allowing people who would not harm a real animal to shed their natural kindness and pretend to be a thug. I have often felt that politicians and journalists who enjoy teacher bashing should play an adapted version, with little rubber teachers emerging instead of moles, but I digress.

This arcade game has clearly inspired our official truancy policy. The bad news that unauthorised absenteeism had actually increased, despite an almost billion-pound initiative to reduce it, produced the usual knee-jerk reaction: get an even bigger cosh, lay in more tear gas, and send in Fang, the killer dog.

Anyone who has looked at the root causes of truancy knows that this simplistic beat-the-buggers-stupid approach is inappropriate in many cases.

The evidence shows that most truancy occurs among a small minority. About half of all instances are accounted for by just over 2 per cent of pupils.

Persistent truants are often children with a special need, on free school meals, boys in Years 9 and 10. Many are low attainers, in some cases unlikely to obtain any GCSE grades at all.

A few years ago we sent out a researcher to investigate some absentees in more detail. In one home he visited, two perfectly healthy young secondary school lads sat watching television.

"Aren't they well?" he asked the boys' mother.

"Oh yes," she replied, "but I've told them, one day they'll come home and find me dead on the floor, if I've had one of my turns."

What would be the point of beating to pulp children who are, effectively, acting as a carer to someone who is emotionally ill? Would many of us, as children, have risked going to school, believing we might later find our mother dead on the carpet?

In today's senseless quest for soundbites, the key question - why truants actually stay away from school without permission - is not even asked. Some children have weedy excuses: shopping with a parent, an unofficial birthday celebration, having their belly button pierced. Others are heroes rather than villains, acting as carers.

On one issue there was a deafening silence from that well- known pop group A Spokesman and the Spin Doctors. The most frequent absentees are alienated older pupils, unmotivated and rudderless. They often say they find school boring.

Is there a teeny chance the Government might shoulder some share of the blame here? In the exam-driven culture that successive governments have sponsored, society pays a high price for the losers. Even successful pupils complain about the dreariness of Sats practice and the sterility of fact-grubbing for exams.

The Government thus escapes without censure, since most truants, though by no means all of them, come from the least well off, the weakest in society.

They are much more likely to be sued by the Government for bunking off, than to countersue it for boring them to oblivion, purely because of the need for vote-winning soundbites and political expediency.

Many truants have a rotten image of themselves and poor self-esteem, no sense of worth, society's flops. Their school history records constant failure.

Perhaps one day someone will have the courage to face up to the realities that lie beneath the surface of truancy.

By all means wield the cosh on the tiny minority of parents who callously exploit their children, and take a strong line with pupils who are a menace to society. But then try to discover whether some of the others could be engaged by a more challenging and appropriate curriculum, where they have a chance of succeeding for once.

The Tomlinson report at least tried to address the question of motivation by establishing four levels and types of programme. It offered a better chance of engaging all pupils than today's grindingly uniform orthodoxy, where those unable to pile up the A grades are seen as lepers.

But what was the response of Ruth Kelly to this opportunity? The Duchess of Dudsville turned it down. Instead of a curriculum that attempts to excite and engage the disaffected, the answer is seen as a big net to catch truants in, and a fat cosh to pulp them with.

So official policy only addresses symptoms. The poor beggars at the bottom of the pile are to be grilled, drilled and then milled. It is no way to treat a rubber mole, let alone the most vulnerable of the next generation.

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