TRUANCY represents a major challenge for government, schools and parents. Each year at least one million children - around 15 per cent of all pupils - play truant, and the equivalent of eight million school days a year is lost, according to the Department for Education and Employment.
The Government has set schools an ambitious target of cutting truancy by a third by 2002, and in future teachers' pay could be linked to their success in doing so. At the Labour party conference, Education Secretary David Blunkett controversially announced his decision to impose fines of up to pound;5,000 on parents whose children do not attend school regularly.
Many in the teaching profession remain sceptical of increased fines, after all how many families, already in dire straits, have any hope of paying them? Yet others, like John Dunford at the Secondary Heads Association, welcome the move as a means of strengthening the law and getting more parents to court. Up until now parents could not be compelled to attend court and, as a result, about 80 per cent haven't done so.
However, fines will only ever be applicable to a very small number of frquent offenders at the extreme end of the truancy scale. Most pupils if they play truant, do so at a more modest level - skipping lessons that they don't particularly like, or slipping into the habit of missing the odd day here and there. Yet even occasional truancy can damage pupils' educational chances - vital work is missed, proves hard to catch up with, and pupils lose interest and fall further behind. Therefore schools need a raft of measures in place to monitor attendance, to follow up absence and to provide goals to motivate those who may be straying into irregular attendance.
There is, as David Farrant headteacher of Walton high school in Lancashire says, no one solution to the problem of truancy. "But it is important to have a framework of strategies in school, so that pupils know you are following up absence diligently and contacting parents. On the whole, they appreciate the vigilance because it is an expression of care."
Contacting parents on the first day of a child's absence was recently recommended by the Government, in the wake of a case on the south coast where two girls were abducted on their way to school. However, the time and effort required to make the additional phone calls means that this is a non-starter for many larger schools. Some schools do, however, employ non-teaching staff to follow up absences, by phone or even by making home visits.
Earlier this year, Middlesbrough education action zone introduced a commercial telephone scheme Call Divert, into three of its primary schools. For up to pound;20 a week, the schools pay the company to make up to 30 or 40 phone calls every morning, chasing up absences and asking when the child will be back at school. The school has to submit a list of names each day after registration, but may choose to target different groups of pupils at different times.
Late arrival is often more of a concern than truancy for primaries, and two of the three schools involved in the Middlesbrough scheme believe Call Divert has had an impact.
Kirkbalk school in Barnsley, a secondary school with attendance over the 90 per cent watershed, is also using Call Divert, to target a small group of sporadic non-attenders (see box). Headteacher Mike Evans finds it invaluable in reinforcing, on the first day of absence, the school's message about the importance of good attendance, and he says that pupils taking the odd day off are returning to school sooner than they might otherwise have done. Clearly, a scheme like this falls down where families are either not on the phone, or not there to answer it. It also cannot check on the increasing number of pupils who miss lessons, after turning up at school for registration.
Here, the Bromcom electronic registration system, which can monitor pupils at every lesson, is a useful device, though costly to install. Teachers complete an electronic register on a small computer screen and the information feeds into a school-wide network of easily accessible attendance records. Mike Kehoe, head; of Smithills school, a 1,600-strong comprehensive in Bolton, Lancashire, has had the system in place for more than five years and says there is now very little "internal truancy" there as pupil absence can be picked up so quickly.
The school also has six electronic "pagers", partly funded by Bolton education authority, which it places with "supportive" parents whose children truant persistently, so that parents and school can update each other on the child's whereabouts. This, too, has been effective, Mr Kehoe says, but would not of course work in cases where parents were not bothered by their children's absence from school.
Some secondary schools use swipe cards for pupils to clock themselves in and out, or issue passes - subject to a letter from home - for those with a reason to leave school during the pupil day. Pupil motivation can also be enhanced if there are rewards for good attendance. Walton high school in Lancashire, for instance, issues termly certificates, linked to pupil's records of achievement.
Walker comprehensive in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, gives every pupil a pen with the school logo if a class achieves 100 per cent attendance for a week; after two weeks, the reward grows to a maths set, and after three weeks, a calculator.
Outside school, good community relations have a part to play in combating truancy. Police now have the power to return truants to school. Some local authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent, have run local schemes involving shopkeepers, where children found in a shop during school hours would not be served.
When truancy becomes more persistent, education welfare officers visit families at home and liaise with the school. Michael Sunderland, president of the National Association for Social Workers in Education, says this work is most effective when schools are clear in setting aside times for multi-agency meetings, and appoint an attendance co-ordinator to oversee the process.
Dee Palmer-Jones, project director of Middlesbrough education action zone, has found that parent-support groups in school can be helpful - parents with stroppy teenagers refusing to go to school can feel very isolated.
For younger children she says, the setting of joint targets by home and school may be sufficient to jog them into better attendance. Some truanting 14 to 16 year-olds may, however, find the school environment and large numbers genuinely difficult to cope with, she says. Such pupils would benefit from greater curriculum flexibility - now promised by the Government - and the chance to spend part of the day in a college, day centre or youth club.
Call Divert: 01226 213 443 Bromcom: 0181 695 8000
HOW A PHONE HELPS PARENTS KEEP CHECK.
KIRKBALK school in Barnsley pays Call Divert, an independent company, to phone the homes of children who haven't arrived at school that morning. A parent, who did not wish to be named, said:"This is such a big school that it would cost a fortune to use Call Divert with all the children. But it is only used for a small group.
"I don't think it matters that it's not actually the school that rings up; Call Divert says to parents they are ringing on behalf of the school, so a lot of parents won't know, will they? If they phoned me, I would presume it was someone like the school secretary or somebody like that.
"My child is 13, and I would like to know they would ring if she hadn't arrived -- unlike the case on the south coast earlier this year, when the parents thought their daughters were at school. I would rather know at 9am, and then something could be done; a lot could happen between 9am and 4pm.
"If she was taking time off school and I didn't know about it, I would want to know straight away - as long as all the checks had been done; sometimes the child might be there, but have missed registration, and the panic sets in.
"I haven't had any worries about her attendance yet. The school gives children certificates if they've had 100 per cent attendance, for a term or a year; my daughter has had one, and she was very pleased.
For children who sometimes take a few days off, it might push them along a bit to come back to school, if they know someone's checking up on them. It's like the old school "bobby", when I was at school, who used to go round checking when children didn't turn up.
"In severe cases, it's probably better for someone to go to the house, but with the patchy attenders, just a phone call is probably enough.
I think it's good to contact parents on the first day. If you know straightaway, you can sort the problem out and then it doesn't build up and up.
It could be all sorts of things; there could be reasons at school, for a child not wanting to go, like being bullied."