The truth behind the truancy tables...

9th December 1994 at 00:00
I retired in the summer of this year from the headship of Whalley Range High School in Manchester, categorised as the "worst" school for truancy in the country because of its 14 per cent unauthorised absences. Probably no one is in a better position than I am to nail the lie implicit in this simplistic assertion.

What were the facts behind the figures?

* The school recorded unauthorised absences as they occurred, that is, absences for which there was no official parental or guardian consent presented by letter or telephone.

* We made no attempt to "doctor" figures, but sought by persuasion, documentation and staff follow-up, to ensure as many absences as possible were authorised, that the pupils did have parental or guardian consent.

* We recognised the school's constituency as having social deprivation, cultural diversity and pupil under-achievement. These were everyday concerns which also affected attendance.

* We reported our figures honestly when some schools did not - or used criteria which were acceptable to them but not to us. This is not a criticism of others, but a reflection of realities as we saw them.

* From mid-autumn to Easter, we were without an educational welfare officer, so we were trying to tackle attendance problems with one hand tied behind our backs. The splendid work done by our temporary one-term officer in the summer term was too late to make a significant impact.

* Some persistent non-attenders for whom there was no authorised absence dominated the returns over and over again - some 30 students out of 800-plus.

* I sought co-operation and support from colleagues who worked within the inner city, promoting an imaginative scheme for raising standards which covered five schools, backed by the Moss Side and Hulme Task Force, endorsed by the Department of the Environment. It was due to start this term for three years to tackle the student alienation which has such an influence on school attendance.

* The centrepiece of the programme was the employment of home-school liaison workers who would underpin the work of the schools in seeking to tackle the problems of poor attendance and under-achievement. We ran a pilot scheme for five weeks in the summer term to prepare for the subsequent launch of the scheme.

Whalley Range had problems, but also great advantages and possibilities; all the planning is in place for a Pounds 3.75 million refurbishment and new build which I undertook with the authority and a committed team of staff helpers.

The school has excellent prospects, an overwhelming majority of splendid students and a long and distinguished history within the city. HMI described it in 1992 as a "harmonious community". The changes which were needed were in hand from the 1992 inspection and in no sense, to use current parlance, was this a school which needed to be "turned around".

To talk about its truancy record as being the worst in the country is somewhat akin to entering Nigel Mansell for the Round Britain Cycle Race, the wrong rider for the wrong event at the wrong time. Quite simply, these were the wrong conclusions in the wrong context for the wrong reasons.

George Bennett lives in Cheshire.

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