Schools may have to set themselves apart from the communities they serve in order to reduce truancy, according to a paper published by London University's Institute of Education.
Truancy is increasing in areas of high unemployment and where schools are often rejected by both parents and pupils as part of an authoritarian society they want no part of, says the author, Dr Susan Hallam.
She says schools should follow the example of those in similar circumstances in the United States. Here the schools set themselves apart from the negative environment surrounding them.
She said: "Poor attendance at school appears to be an increasing problem in communities where there is a high level of unemployment and alienation from society. Schools unaided cannot deal with the problems in such circumstances. They themselves are often perceived as representing the society from which the community is alienated. Strategies of reaching out to promote links with parents and the community are also unlikely to be successful in these circumstances. In such situations schools may need to adopt techniques which insulate the school and its pupils from the community."
Schools are required to publish figures for authorised and unauthorised absence. However, Dr Hallam discovered that assessing school attendance can be problematic.
"Levels of post-registration truancy are usually assessed through questionnaires to pupils. They may find it expedient to minimise their absence or, if they are guaranteed anonymity from officialdom, may exaggerate it to impress their peers," she said.
The official statistics, she said, obscure the patterns of non-attendance. According to Department for Education and Employment figures for England (1994-95), there was a 94 per cent attendance in primary schools and 91 per cent in secondaries.
Dr Hallam said other studies show that at primary schools absence is highest when children start school, improves in the middle years and then deteriorates. There is a general increase in absence as pupils progress through secondary school, the highest rates at Years 9 and 10. Even within the same catchment area schools have differing levels of attendance.
"Schools alone cannot shoulder the responsibility for ensuring full attendance," she said. "But they do make a difference and are best placed to generate change."
The reason most often given for absence is illness. But families often have differing conceptions of what sort of illness precludes attendance. Children of working mothers are off less than those with mothers at home. Another reason is anxiety. This can be caused by finding work too hard, bullying, embarrassment at PE, or other factors.
"To improve overall attendance, schools should attempt to reduce possible causes of anxiety," said Dr Hallam.
To do this schools must promote a positive environment, she said. The school must look as attractive as possible, bullying must be reduced, for example by a code of conduct, and positive relationships between teachers and pupils should be encouraged.
Children with poor literacy may struggle with other parts of the curriculum and be tempted to miss lessons. These children should be provided with voluntary sessions to help them catch up.
For older children, who find the curriculum dull, other opportunities - for example work experience and alternative vocational qualifications - should be sought.
Viewpoint, No 6, 'Truancy: Can schools improve attendance?', Institute of Education, London University, June 1997
Holiday absence, TES2, page 22