Truancy, the girls' way of rebellion

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Some children just seem unable to come to terms with being in school and research is finding a gender difference in how they react. Boys are at higher risk of exclusion for disruptive behaviour, whereas girls truant, some for classes, others for whole days. Karen Shead reports

A leading criminologist has been surprised by some of the gender differences that have emerged in a research study she has written on youth and crime.

Truancy is more prevalent among teenage girls than boys in Scotland, says Dr Lesley McAra, senior lecturer in criminology at Edinburgh University. Although only one in five persistent truants at primary school were girls, this increased to three in five by the middle of secondary school, overtaking the boys.

"I was slightly surprised by the fact that the girls seem to be more persistent truants when they get to the third year of secondary school," she admits.

Truancy, School Exclusion and Substance Misuse is one of four reports commissioned by the Scottish Executive to examine truancy, parenting, gender and victimisation among young people and links with delinquent and criminal behaviour. They are the latest in a series from the team conducting the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a longitudinal study of criminal offending and anti-social behaviour among young people.

The study tracks the 4,300 children who transferred to secondary school in Edinburgh in the autumn of 1998. They have completed a questionnaire every year and the team also interviewed their parents in 2001. Forty secondary schools in the city participate in the research, including all 23 mainstream schools, most of the city's independent schools and schools for children with special educational needs.

A range of local agencies have also been involved, including the council's education and social work departments, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, the Scottish Executive and Lothian and Borders Police.

Dr McAra is the co-director of the Edinburgh study and works alongside David Smith, professor of criminology, and a team of researchers. The aim is to find out more about the causes of youth crime in the hope of preventing it, so the study covers not just crime and delinquency but many aspects of young people's lives such as neighbourhoods and communities.

The report on truancy, school exclusion and substance misuse offers an insight into possible reasons for truancy. Weak parental supervision, a dislike of school and a lack of self-control partly explain why children skip school and why they misuse substances. But pinpointing the exact reasons why girls are more likely to truant at secondary school is not easy, says Dr McAra.

"There are probably lots of reasons and there would need to be more research to give definitive answers," she says.

"One thing people say is that sometimes there is collusion between girls and parents; sometimes girls are more involved in childcare and have to miss school because of this, but I think this is only a small proportion.

"Most kids are not persistent truants," says Dr McAra. "They maybe do it once."

The biggest proportion (41 per cent) were found to be truanting for only part of the day. "There are certain subjects that might make girls more likely to bunk off than boys," Dr McAra explains. "Girls are not likely to take part in things like swimming and PE, especially over the puberty stages."

But she also believes there is a group of girls who are lacking in attachment to school, who are disaffected with it.

"In Scotland over the past few years, girls have been successful at school and outstripping boys, and this suggests there is a group of girls at one end, high achievers, and a group at the other end. It suggests that girls are more polarised than boys."

Although the findings show girls were more likely to truant, boys were more likely to be excluded from school - 74 per cent of those excluded in the third year of secondary school were boys - and were more likely to be involved in specific forms of more serious delinquency such as carrying a weapon, robbery, theft from cars and cruelty to animals.

Girls, the study suggests, were more likely to be involved in lower level forms of delinquency, such as graffiti.

"There may be more of a risk of exclusion because they are boys, there might be some degree of gender bias there, but that has to be qualified and needs more research," says Dr McAra.

"Maybe when boys exhibit difficult behaviour at school, the level is much higher than girls. I think it will be the case that when boys are being punished their behaviour is more severe than girls, they are more likely to be aggressive or difficult, which could lead to exclusion."

Truants, the report says, have particular personalities: they are impulsive, prone to risk-taking and have low self-esteem. However, Dr McAra adds, "The neighbourhood they live in, the environment at home and in school, these things are much more important than personality."

The report also suggests truancy is triggered by high volumes of bad behaviour at school and high levels of punishment or poor relationships with teachers, and points to the link between a negative experience of school and absenteeism. Consquently, the researchers highlight the importance of promoting discipline and fostering pro-school attitudes among children and parents.

"A pro-school approach would be very useful," says Dr McAra. "It needs to come from both parents and kids. We need to bring parents back into the school.

"The needs of teenage girls also require to be looked at. Quite a lot of the truancy is low level, but there is a lot more analysis we could do. The gender difference needs more exploration."

In Dumfries and Galloway, the Aberlour Child Care Trust, which runs the Crannog Project to help teenagers at risk of exclusion from school, supports the research findings. Over the years since the project was set up in 1997, staff have noticed a rise in the number of girls they help.

"We started seven years ago and at that time the number of boys way exceeded the number of girls who were referred to us. It is now quite even; we have 22 girls and 28 boys," says one of the project managers, Agnes Henderson. "Girls are certainly truanting and refusing to go to school."

The Crannog Project has three bases, in Stranraer, Annan and Dumfries. The teams feature staff with a range of experience in working with young people, all headed by project managers. The service manager, Steve McCreadie, is based in the council's education and community resources department in Dumfries.

The project, which is funded by the Aberlour Trust, the council, the Scottish Executive and Lloyds TSB, is targeted at 12- to 16-year-olds and offers a programme of education and care. Staff work with young people to help them to return to school or remain in school, support their families and carers and liaise with other agencies. Each young person has a programme tailor-made to his or her needs.

Mr McCreadie says the current gender balance of the young people the project staff work with is unusual. "I'm sure there are a variety of reasons for it, but it is interesting that there's more of an equal balance," he says. "Whether it's because girls are behaving differently now or there are better referral systems is hard to say.

"We know that programmes have to be individually tailored to each young person and that gender issues have to be taken in to account.

"The research would suggest that we need to work harder to understand the influences on boys and girls in respect of delinquency. We also need to ensure that young women, who may exclude themselves from education and other services through truancy, have full access to support services."

Teenage girls have a lot of pressure on them from other girls of their age and this desire to fit in could be a reason why girls miss school, says Ms Henderson: "There's a lot of pressure to be sexual, and to be adult to them seems to mean sex, smoking and drinking. They leave behind the sports and other pastimes, and being clever is not seen as cool.

"Maybe they have more control now," she suggests. "Maybe they feel a bit more powerful. In some ways their self-esteem is very low but they also have confidence. It takes quite a surge of confidence not go to school and to do that frequently."

The Crannog Project staff also support the report's finding that boys are excluded more often than girls. "Sometimes this means the boys are the ones referred on to specialist agencies," says Mr McCreadie. "We need to ensure that girls don't fall through the net because they might be less visible due to truancy."

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