At the sharp end of a truancy crackdown
"He's actually got a pain in his side," the father explained. The boy's mother, looking agitated, emerged from a shop and gave more detail about his condition: "He's got hand and foot and mouth disease." Their GP had examined the boy's skin complaint that morning and they had told his school that he was taking the rest of the day off.
Police and attendance officers have been challenging out-of-school youngsters across Strathclyde in a high-profile crackdown on truancy as part of Operation Spotlight, an initiative against crime and street disorder.
In Coatbridge five children from one family were taken home by officers when they said they weren't at school because their mother was unwell. It turned out that mother and father were in perfect health. Their offspring had been kept from school in order to collect a Giro from the post office.
"What we are finding is that the vast majority of truants are taking a day off without their parents' knowledge," said Inspector Caroline Scott, of Strathclyde Police. "Far more serious are those cases where parents think they can keep their children off school for trivial reasons such as running errands. They don't realise that they have a legal responsibility to send their children to school."
Inspector Scott added: "There are really two issues. Children playing truant can be vulnerable and there's quite clearly a link between truancy and petty crime such as shoplifting."
A recent survey in Strathclyde Police A division, which covers the Glasgow districts of Townhead, Cowcaddens and Cranstonhill, found truants were responsible for one in every four shoplifting cases.
In Castlemilk John Mitchell, a school attendance officer, is accompanied by PC Andrew Blain on a round of known haunts of truants. Police reckon that as many as 1,600 children truant every day in an area which includes 80 schools in Gorbals, Queen's Park, Castlemilk and Rutherglen. PC Blain stops two youngsters, John, aged 11, and his cousin six-year-old Derek, in the Braes shopping centre.
John's mother rushes up to explain that she is moving house and kept the boys off to help her. Mr Mitchell seems to accept that explanation though he says later that moving home might be easier done with children at school. "At the end of the day that's a personal judgment."
He admits that having a uniformed officer with him tends to create more agitation on the part of possible truants. "Obviously we are trying to act discreetly. We are not there to create problems but resolve them."
An analysis of crime statistics last year revealed that youngsters who truant committed 12 per cent of all detected cases of shoplifting in Glasgow city centre. The two day crackdown this week traced 327 truants throughout the Strathclyde Police area. This is a slight improvement on last month's offensive when 391 truants were caught.