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Unlucky numbers game

Official measures of truancy and other pupil absence create an unfairly negative picture in many schools, argues Ken Reid.

The Government is doing much to combat truancy and other forms of non-attendance. Recent initiatives include the introduction of new fast-track prosecutions, police being located in or around selected schools, truancy watch and truancy sweeps. The Office for Standards in Education has set targets for overall attendance, authorised and unauthorised absence and inspection criteria for schools and LEAs.

The list goes on: new rules in the forthcoming Children Act; reform of the education welfare service; new behaviour and education support teams in local education authorities; tough fines for parents whose children miss school, and jail for persistent offenders; the exploration of national standards for all professionals working with children; and, finally, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act rules.

Quite a list. And, some lucky authorities can add staffing created by initiatives such as Excellence in Cities, education action zones, and Connexions. With the introduction of learning mentors, home-school liaison officers, classroom assistants and, in some schools, attendance officers or attendance support staff, there is certainly no shortage of professionals engaged in the prevention of pupils' non-attendance. But, is the money for this being spent wisely?

While the Government and the Department for Education and Skills cannot be faulted for effort, there are a few areas where more thought is required.

Some fairly simple amendments, not least to Circular 399 which sets out schools' attendance regulations, would help the profession a great deal.

The Government has undoubtedly thrown money and resources at the issue of non-attendance, but there has been little overall improvement in levels of authorised and unauthorised absence and these normally exclude post-registration truancy and absence from individual lessons. This is despite the fact that there is more good practice in schools and LEAs than ever before. Why?

Part of the problem is the patchy nature of the Government's reforms. Let us take the case of Walsall. On any indicator of deprivation, Walsall is high on the list, yet it was largely excluded from the Excellence in Cities and action zone initiatives. Why? Probably because the old Walsall LEA was ill-prepared to make the requisite bids so it received no funding.

You would think that someone inside the DfES would have considered the criteria and realised that if authorities like Walsall were not funded, the initiatives could not have universal success. This is especially the case when some neighbouring and other much less deprived LEAs were given significant funding.

Education Walsall, the new partnership running the authority, is attempting to redress the situation without the same funding or staffing levels as many other authorities. Despite this, the new management team and headteachers are working overtime to improve attendance. Recently, they completed probably the most extensive training programme on attendance that has ever taken place.

Despite considerable professional effort, there are gaps in current DfES thinking and in the regulations governing Circular 399. Why, for example, do holidays taken in term time count against a school's attendance returns? Some headteachers are losing their jobs andor receiving adverse Ofsted reports on attendance or finding schools placed in special measures for matters beyond their control. If holidays taken in term-time were excluded from official statistics, Walsall, like many other LEAs, would immediately become a high attendance authority and most schools would easily make their DfES targets.

But, as teachers prepare to pay top prices to go away in August, it is not only term-time holidays that irritate. Ofsted's assessments of attendance often tend to be the most critcial single aspect of its inspections. This may be influenced by the fact that it is the lay inspector who often acts as lead person on attendance and assesses how schools attempt to reach their targets. The damaging effects that a few persistent absentees can have on schools and Ofsted reports should not be underestimated.

The regulations too, need an overhaul. Do we really need to know for registration purposes whether a pupil is away for authorised or unauthorised reasons? In any event, how can teachers be sure they really know the reason for a pupil's absence?

Society is changing. Family disharmony is rife. Some parents are unable to control their children and make them go to school. While they should be able to do so, the DfES should be focusing on how best to educate parents to carry out their statutory requirements.

If they can find an answer, attendance rates within schools may not only start to improve but the Government will be able to save itself and teachers a great deal of time and resources. It may even begin to claim to start to have resolved a problem, rather than merely attempting to manage it at a cost of millions.

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea institute of higher education. His latest book Truancy: short and long-term solutions is published by Routledge Falmer

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