ME, families and school absences

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Did you know that most long-term absence from school is caused by ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). Who conducted the trenchant study which produced this conclusion? An ME pressure group.

This scenario of conclusions arrived at by research commissioned by parties not entirely impartial is increasingly common. A research project lends a veneer of objectivity to dubious conclusions. I have now developed the automatic response of checking who carried out the study and who commissioned it. Try it for yourself and you will surely see what I mean.

Sportswear firms may discover that children will be irreversibly damaged if they do not have four changes of their team's replica strip each year, but that does not mean that it is true.

It is indisputable that an alarming and increasing number of young people suffer from mental illness, including hyperactivity, anxiety and anorexia and, most commonly, depression. Many of these victims are in school day after day and teachers toil to manage their symptoms without knowing or understanding the source of the condition. Family breakdown, financial crises, alcoholism, misuse of drugs in the home and child abuse contribute to a distressing epidemic of psychosis which plagues our developed world. This malaise can provoke absences, but to label such cases as ME would be simplistic and unhelpful.

Long-term absence can indeed be attributed to ME, that is, Mother's Encouragement, and father's too.

Most absence from school is condoned by parents and a relatively small percentage of the total is due to truancy. Many children who absent themselves from school over extended periods do so with the connivance, or at least with the acquiescence, of their families. In some cases, the teenage son or daughter provides a convenient babysitter for younger children. The more mature looking child may even be working in a local shop or the family business. More commonly, the household does not see the light of day until very late morning, by which time school buses are long one and there is no other convenient transport.

Holy Rood has worked hard to reintegrate long-term absentees but arrangements in place nationally to confront such abdication of responsibility are anodyne and toothless. Frances Ratcliffe, a school auxiliary, works on attendance and punctuality all day every school day. Guidance staff and the education welfare officer pursue recidivists tirelessly. An area attendance group sends out exocet missiles, warning of the grave consequences of continued absence and summoning parents to appear. These tend to provoke an energy-sapping blend of excuses, promises and invective.

Parents under pressure about absence will resort to claims of bullying by peers, victimisation by staff or poor teaching. The consumerist society in turn encourages this approach and an investigation is launched to identify the bully, the martinet or the ineffective teacher. This provides a smokescreen of sufficient durability to allow the heat to pass.

Our most stubborn non-attenders are unimpressed by letters, officers at the door and even threats of prosecution. Somehow in the future parents will have to be made accountable for children's attendance and behaviour.

In France, benefits can be reduced or stopped if children do not appear for school. How about a supplement to child benefit entitled education allowance, only payable on completion of 80 per cent attendance. If supermarkets can do it with their loyalty cards, the Scottish Executive could devise a scheme with the Benefits Agency. I can just see the bill-board at the school gate - Holy Rood High School: Points Mean Pounds.

Another powerful motivator for the more spasmodic disappearing artist would be to enter total attendance from S1 to S4 on the SQA certificate, with appropriate recognition of medical circumstances. It could be cogently argued that attendance is a core skill, which will be of interest to prospective employers.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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