24th January 2003 at 00:00
Mitching it. Wagging it. Dogging it. Twagging it. If proof were needed that truancy is ingrained in our culture, look no further than the range of slang phrases used to describe it. Children have been bunking off and skipping lessons since the first schools were established. But the fight against truancy has never had a higher profile: sweeps by police and welfare officers, hi-tech registration systems, increased fines, prison sentences for parents - and, late last year, proposals for headteachers, police or education welfare officers to issue "fixed penalty" fines to parents of persistent non-attenders. But are these measures enough? More than eight million schooldays are lost to truancy every year, and there is little sign of that figure falling. What can we do to get truants back into school? And, more importantly, why do they not want to be there in the first place?

What sort of numbers are we talking?

Opinions vary widely, although experts agree that the Government figure of 50,000 each day is well short of the mark. One problem is the lack of consistency between schools when it comes to registering attendance.

Truancy is usually defined as "unauthorised absence" - a phrase open to interpretation. Heads are under pressure to improve attendance rates, and some schools will mark all absences as "authorised", providing the child brings a parental note on return to school. Nor do the figures include those pupils who register at 8.55am before disappearing again. Or those who skip the odd lesson because they don't like Mr Smith or because they owe Miss Jones some homework. And finally, there are thousands of children under 16 who just don't appear on any school roll. Sometimes they are the children of illegal immigrants or Travellers. But often they have just been lost in the system. For example, a TUCMori poll in 2001 found that 100,000 children under 16 truant every day so they can hold down jobs, often using false identities.

Does truancy matter?

"Playing truant" implies that skipping school is a game. The facts tell a more disturbing story. A 1998 study found that only 8 per cent of regular truants achieved five GCSEs at A-C, while one in three failed to achieve any passes. Evidence also suggests truants have an increased likelihood of ending up homeless, unemployed and in dysfunctional relationships. Schools suffer, too. Many teachers say having a large number of irregular attenders in a class affects the progress of those who do attend regularly.

But the most compelling argument as to why non-attendance matters - to individuals and to society at large - lies in the link between truancy and crime. Five per cent of all crimes are carried out by truants during school hours; 23 per cent of young people sentenced in court have a history of truancy; truants are three times more likely to offend than non-truants; a 1999 truancy sweep in east London led to a 70 per cent fall in car crime; almost 80 per cent of boys who truant once a week commit criminal offences.

The list goes on.

Is it a growing problem?

Yes. The fact that children are maturing increasingly early means truancy becomes an issue at an early age. Estimates suggest one in three long-term truants starts out by missing lessons at primary school; almost a third of all pupils picked up on recent truancy sweeps were under the age of 11. In secondary schools, the rate of unauthorised absence has remained unchanged over the past five years and virtually unchanged over the past 10, despite government initiatives and Ofsted pressure. "We're talking about a complex social problem," says Heather Malcolm of the Scottish Council for Research in Education. "There's no quick fix; it will be a long-term struggle."

The fight against truancy has been going on for more than a century. As long ago as 1870 the authorities were concerned by non-attendance, and by the early 1900s many schools had attendance officers to round up those who weren't in class. "What a business it was," remarks one officer writing his memoirs in 1913, "to get the children into the schools."

Why do children truant ?

Children picked up on recent sweeps said they'd not gone to school because "I had to buy a new hamster" or "I felt I had a spot coming". Other excuses included: "I don't like Mondays", "It's my birthday" and, simply, "It's a Friday". Psychologists give more complex reasons: bullying, lack of self-esteem, poor teacher-pupil relationships, peer pressure, and family problems.

But one complaint stands out: truants usually describe school as boring or irrelevant. For the 14-year-old set on becoming a hairdresser, it can be difficult to see the point of GCSE history. "We have to find ways of making school relevant to every pupil," says Professor Ken Reid of Swansea Institute of Higher Education. "It's no coincidence that countries with a tradition of running a vocational curriculum alongside an academic curriculum have lower rates of non-attendance."

Keeping truants in school - physical and practical The challenge here is to decide which changes will have most impact for you. Cutting down on post-registration and single-lesson truancy usually calls for practical measures. Think about the premises. Are there any "truancy holes" where pupils can slip out of school unnoticed? It's not unheard of for sweeps to pick up a truant in the morning, return him or her to school, then catch the pupil again in the afternoon. Some schools employ "bouncers" to patrol the perimeter. Carry out regular spot-checks in areas where children who skip lessons might take refuge. On a positive note, think about introducing special facilities for Years 9, 10 and 11 in the same way that schools often do for sixth-formers. If pupils still head for town when they should be in class, decide whether or not you are going to attempt to retrieve them. Give local shopkeepers details of your school uniform, photographs of regular truants, and a hotline number to call. If they do report a truant, make sure you respond. Liaise with the local authority, the education welfare team and the police.

Keeping truants in school - academic and pastoral Think about the curriculum. Introduce truancy as a topic in the PSHE syllabus, in the same way as sex or smoking, preferably in Year 7.

Mentoring schemes have been shown to have a positive effect on attendance, while involvement in sport, music or drama can transform a reluctant pupil's attitude to school. Consider increasing the relevance of curriculum; some schools forge links with tertiary colleges that offer vocational tuition. Ensure that potential truants have easy access to ICT facilities. In extreme cases, consider a "negotiated curriculum", in which truants decide for themselves which lessons they will attend - some school is better than no school. Remember, too, that frequent non-attendance by staff - for whatever reason - can send out the wrong message to pupils. Is every conference, course and training day essential?

Finally, check that there is plenty of pastoral support. Truants who return to school will need handling with care. If they feel stigmatised, or are subjected to "enjoy your holiday?"-style sarcasm, chances are they'll be straight back down the shopping centre.

Registration and rapid response Tightening security and relaxing the timetable can help. But if you're serious about tackling truancy the best place to start is with a look at how you record absences and how you respond to them. Electronic registration usually operates in one of two ways. One system enables registration to be taken by the teacher using a small notebook-sized computer. The other uses swipe cards that pupils put through a scanner as they enter school buildings or classrooms. In either case, the attendance data is transmitted to a central computer in the school office, and can be processed in minutes.

You can still cut truancy if you're using old-fashioned registers.

Introducing lesson-by-lesson registration, for example, can detect those who skip the odd period. If that's too time-consuming, stick to a morning and afternoon registration but vary the time when the second is taken.

Remember, too, that many new teachers don't know how to record attendance and follow-up absences, so include it as part of induction.

Having identified absentees, contact their parents. Again, technology can make life easier; many schools use software that will automatically contact parents by phone, text message or email. It then leaves a message asking them to record the reason for their child's absence. An automated system frees up administration staff, doesn't get abused by parents, and is persistent - even the most obstructive parents tend to get worn down by repeated calls. Schools that have combined electronic registration with an automated response system have been able to cut unauthorised absences by up to 30 per cent. But hi-tech equipment isn't cheap. Electronic registration can cost upwards of pound;30,000 and despite pound;11 million of government funding being made available since September last year to equip the most needy schools, fewer than one in four secondary schools have electronic systems.

Ticket to truant

Pestering parents until they send you a Jimmy-had-a-migraine note is all well and good - if Jimmy really did have a migraine. But evidence suggests that a substantial number of parents condone their child's non-attendance.

For example, most primary-age truants picked up during city centre sweeps are accompanied by a parent. Sometimes parents permit truancy because they want their children to help them or keep them company. Sometimes they just lack the authority to make them attend. In many cases, truancy seems to be as hereditary as brown hair or blue eyes. "We've identified third or fourth-generation truants," says Ken Reid. However, the biggest reason for parental-condoned absence from school needs no psychological explanation: holidays can be 30 per cent cheaper outside peak periods. The problem has escalated to the extent that many schools now list family holidays as the single biggest cause of non-attendance.

Ticket to Alton Towers

Publishing the names of 100 per cent attenders, awarding certificates, organising inter-form attendance competitions - go for whatever appeals to pupils. Usually that means a lucrative prize. Think class outings to Alton Towers rather than book tokens or a quaint little trophy. Some schools offer individual prizes, which can be even more enticing, such as an end-of-year trip to Disneyland Paris - to be taken during the holidays, of course. You might even be able to persuade local businesses to stump up the cash - improved attendance rates mean good publicity for school and sponsor. Another option is to hold prize draws every week or fortnight, with the names of all 100 per cent attenders going in the hat.

Red and yellow and green and blue. . .

Truanting the first time takes courage. Once the line has been crossed, it can easily become a habit. Ken Reid has pioneered the primary secondary colour-coded scheme (PSCC). The principle is simple. Every pupil who arrives at secondary school is classified according to risk of truancy.

Those with a record of non-attendance form the highest risk category become the red group; those with a family history of non-attendance make up the blue group. Academic strugglers go into the yellow group, while those deemed "low risk" are in the green group. Every form contains pupils from each category, but throughout the week they are separated into their colour groups to get support specific to their needs. The aim is to "downgrade" pupils so that by Years 10 and 11 - traditionally the worst years for truancy - there are few in the higher risk categories.

The Amos effect

By law, parents are responsible for ensuring that their children attend school. Those who fail can be prosecuted by the local education authority and, if found guilty, face a maximum fine of pound;2,500 per parent, per child, or up to three months in prison. Usually the court opts for a fine, often less than pound;100, but early last year Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos was jailed for 60 days after two of her five children registered attendance rates of less than 35 per cent. Supporters of the sentence argued that it sent a clear warning to others. Others thought that spending thousands of pounds sending a single mother to prison was unenlightened.

The hardliners' argument gained credence when Ms Amos, who served 14 days, admitted the sentence had changed her children's attitudes. Welfare officers and the police reported a sharp drop in truancy cases during the weeks immediately after the case in what became known as "the Amos effect".

The decision to prosecute is usually taken jointly by the school and education welfare officers. For prosecutions to be successful, it's important to have detailed records of all non-attendance, and of all action taken in following up absences. Most LEAs recognise that prosecution can often make matters worse, and use it only as a last resort. But that could change - several authorities have been threatened with legal action by former truants claiming "educational negligence" because their schools failed to take sufficient action against their parents.

And late last year Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced a package designed to help meet the national target for an overall 10 per cent reduction in truancy rates by October 2004. One of his plans - denounced by teachers' leaders and educationists - is to give heads, police and welfare officers powers to issue "fixed penalty" fines to the parents of persistent truants. The proposal is that parents receive a fixed-penalty notice through the post or personally. They will be able to appeal.

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