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Truants don't shop

The real school malingerers have more sense than to hang out at shopping malls, writes Ken Reid

According to the latest government statistics, truancy in England is getting worse. In Wales, thanks to the efforts of schools, teachers, headteachers, education welfare officers, the police, local education authorities and the Welsh Assembly, things are starting to improve, if only slightly.

Managing pupils' non-attendance is not an easy task and in some ways it is becoming increasingly difficult. It does not help, therefore, when professionals are criticised unfairly for doing their best.

It perhaps typifies the events of the past decade that the latest report on truancy sweeps produced by the charity Action on Rights for Children (Arch) claims they are ineffective and waste police time, while raising fundamental concerns about the abuse of children's rights.

The report suggests that most of the pupils stopped or picked up on truancy sweeps have genuine reasons to be away from school such as bereavement, sickness, doctors' appointments, exclusion, being with carers or parents, or undertaking project work for schools.

This report, however, presents only one side of the picture and it is surely wrong on some issues. Rather than being critical of the efforts of the authorities and the way truancy sweeps are organised, they would have been better advised to consider all the available evidence.

Findings from police reports indicate that on days when truancy patrols operate, day-time crime is often reduced by as much as 60 per cent. Reports indicate that patrols are often highly successful in finding pupils who have run away from home, live rough, are engaged in such deviant activities as the possession of drugs or the carrying of weapons, or are participating in child prostitution. Patrols also find pupils who are not enrolled on any school's registration list.

The failure of parents or carers to ensure that their children attend school is also criminal. Yet the report found that most pupils who skip school are with their parents. This is a sad reflection of today's parenting skills.

The report also failed to point out that most genuine truants do not brazenly walk around shopping centres with their parents. Rather, they remain inside their own or friends' homes, fish, play football or participate in group activities well away from their schools.

Where truancy patrols actually fail is on something beyond their own control. Evidence from truancy patrol reports shows that they often collect the same pupils time after time.

Sometimes pupils picked up in the morning session who are returned to school are then stopped again during the afternoon session. It is this aspect of the process which needs some fresh thinking.

The report reaffirms the confusion which surrounds official statistics. For example, the authors suggest that truancy patrols often pick up pupils who are late for school and subsequently describe them as truants.

However, as the recently published New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) report found, official statistics often exclude post-registration truants or specific lesson absentees. As there are more of these kinds of pupils missing school or lessons in some parts of the country, it is perhaps best to be sceptical of all officially-published statistics on school attendance.

In fact, the NPC and another report from the National Audit Office have found that despite the vast sums of money being spent on preventing and tackling truancy, there has been virtually no improvement in school attendance over the past 20 years. Indeed, in some areas school attendance has worsened.

Recent research in Scotland has found that, for the first time, more girls than boys now truant and participate in minor misdemeanours while doing so.

But boys outnumber girls by a ratio of six to one for the number of serious criminal offences committed.

Most worrying is the reduced age of non-attenders. More than a third of all absentees now begin their "mitching" at primary school. Whereas government initiatives have broadly been containing the number of persistent absentees in Years 10 and 11, the increase in the number of non-attenders in Y5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 should be a cause for concern for policy-makers.

This is precisely why teachers, police officers and education welfare officers need help and support from both parents and the general public alike when undertaking truancy patrols.

It has long been my view that the parents of pupils who are picked up by truancy patrols and confirmed to be truanting should be given fixed statutory penalties by post in the same way that speeding fines are managed.

It would also make sense if unco-operative parents of truants were themselves inconvenienced by making them attend compulsory parenting-skills classes: preferably during their own free time such as at weekends.

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal at Swansea institute of higher education and author of Truancy: Short and Long-Term Solutions

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