The in-depth study of school attendance commissioned by the Scottish Office and used by Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, to justify his recent attack on truancy has failed to prove that absence is rife in secondaries.
Truancy was "not a major problem" for five of the seven secondaries and their associated primaries that took part in the study, which was carried out by a team from the Scottish Council for Research in Education. However, the study did reveal a small group of persistent truants in each school who skipped lessons for between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the time.
The research, as Mr Robertson forecast last November, also shows that absence in secondaries, with or without an excuse, leads to poorer Standard grade results.
The proportion of pupils with unexplained absences ranged from 14 per cent to 89 per cent. A statistical analysis of attendance records and Standard grade results revealed that, as absence increased, Standard grade awards dropped on average by at least 0.05 of a grade per subject for every 1.9 days' absence above the average. It made no difference whether the absence was explained or unexplained.
Heather Malcolm, senior researcher, commented: "Our findings confirm a link but it is important to note that they do not prove that absence causes poor performance at school, or conversely that poor performance causes absence. "
Mr Robertson has on several occasions insisted that schools have underestimated the extent of truancy, using previous reports that suggested some 60 per cent of school-leavers admitted to skipping lessons.
The latest evidence shows that over the two terms under study between a half and two-thirds of pupils were absent without explanation for less than five days. Nevertheless, concern is expressed that "an appreciable number" of pupils had high levels of absence.
Most truants felt uneasy about the effects of missing school and believed teachers were unwilling to help them catch up. They also say their parents were generally angry at their absences.
Secondary staff say truancy is an irritant and the researchers note "the degree of frustration and sense of added workload". The effect on fellow pupils was negligible with good attenders arguing that truants themselves were most affected.
Truancy is shown to be largely an issue for secondaries, although the research reveals that primary teachers may understate levels of absence. Rates of absence are not uniform between schools.
Skipping school to extend the weekend appears to be most common, as is absence on either side of holidays. The patterns do not differ between boys and girls and there is little evidence to support any belief in a large, steady rise in absence as the school year progresses.
Understanding Truancy, by Heather Malcolm, Graham Thorpe and Kevin Lowden. Scottish Council for Research in Education, price Pounds 10.