What schools can do to improve attendance

31st January 1997 at 00:00
One of the most significant, if little-noticed, events this week could prove to be the addition of one word to the title of the lead body for the school absence industry. The Jordanhill-based Scottish Initiative on Attendance and Absence is henceforth to be renamed the Scottish Initiative on Attendance, Absence and Attainment. This is a welcome move which should raise the level of debate about school attendance.

As Cameron Munro, the director of the ever lengthening initiative, said this week, the debate on attendance levels should focus on the school as well as the child. There are, of course, many reasons why schools should pursue pupils who fail to show up but there are equally sound curricular or other reasons for schools to examine their own contributions to the attitudes of their pupils.

No doubt many teachers and headteachers are only too happy to see the back of troublesome pupils, however they are classified. But the persistent findings which show pupils' disaffection as they move up from primary into secondary, not to mention the "Spotlight" offensive by Strathclyde Police which has established a clear link between truancy, crime and pupil welfare, are sufficient indications that schools cannot ignore the absentees either for their own or the pupils' sakes or because of the wider social implications.

Scottish Office ministers are not used to much acclaim in these matters but they can certainly bask in the claim, with some justification, that their policy of providing parents with published information on school tables of exam results and absence figures has itself provided the spur for schools to scrutinise their performance. The "secret garden", as the Education Minister described the world of education, has been opened up. A Labour government is unlikely to bring the shutters down again.

But the question is: what does this open garden reveal? There is scope for endless argument about whether variations in the figures represent a fiddling of the books, genuine changes in procedures, or real improvementdeterioration in attendance levels. Local authorities and the Scottish Office cannot even agree on what constitutes an exclusion.

And, whatever the global figures, either nationally or council wide or even school focused, they disguise particular problems in particular year groups. As the head of St Gerard's Secondary in Glasgow made clear to The TES Scotland (page 11), every school is different. It is the same old familiar story which emerges each time such tables appear. The information may be a valuable management tool for a school or a consumer tool for parents but it is scarcely crystal clear for anybody else.

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