Children who do not attend school regularly are much more likely to leave with few or no qualifications. They are also more likely to be drawn into crime and anti-social behaviour and to display a range of social pathologies in adult life.
They are also the group most likely to become dependent upon the state through housing benefit and income support. One recent study estimates that every truant will cost the taxpayer pound;250,000 during his or her adult life.
The Assembly government has overall responsibility for school attendance.
It has set up a task force to advise Jane Davidson, the minister for education and lifelong learning, and the Assembly on how best to improve attendance and reduce truancy in Wales. The task force meets regularly and soon a range of new and challenging initiatives will be introduced.
However, the local education authority service with prime responsibility for helping schools to raise attendance rates is in serious need of change.
At the same time as the Assembly is seriously beginning to strive to improve school attendance in Wales, the education welfare service is facing significant professional challenges.
The role of the EWS varies from authority to authority. Until 15 or 20 years ago, it only dealt with attendance. Today some teams deal with such complex additional tasks as exclusion, child protection, anti-social behaviour, licensing and employment, parenting orders, criminal checks, alternative curriculum and out-of-school placements, health and safety, risk assessment and responsibility for travellers' children, as well as truancy and other forms of non-attendance.
This role will shortly need to be reviewed in the light of recent legislation such as The Children Act, Crime and Disorder Act, Human Rights Act, Data Protection Act, Disability Act and special-needs requirements, to name but a few. There is also increasing evidence that local practice and national policy is beginning to diverge throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Within Wales, the EWS is a specialist support service which works with schools, the LEA and other agencies to bring about an effective and high-quality service for the benefit of young people and their families up to at least a minimum set of professional standards.
However, it is currently being disadvantaged in several ways. First, it is proving extremely difficult to ensure that action taken in magistrates'
courts supports the endeavours which schools, LEAs and education welfare teams make when parents are brought to court for their children's non-attendance. This is causing some heads and teachers to lose confidence in their professional ability.
Second, the levels of professional development and training for staff are extremely varied (TESCymru, May 13). Education welfare officers tend to be recruited from a variety of backgrounds. Some are, for example, former police officers, youth workers or teachers. Others are much younger and embarking on a new, challenging career.
They all tend to suffer from a similar disadvantage. Currently, there is no national training qualification available in Wales either at diploma or degree level. Therefore, most staff are professionally unqualified.
In-service professional development opportunities, too, are often few and far between.
Third, their workloads have increased significantly in recent years. In some LEAs in Wales, it is not unusual for education welfare officers to have potential workloads of up to 8,000 pupils or more: in other words, responsibility for two or three secondary schools and their feeder primaries.
Fourth, education welfare officers often feel that the lack of alternative or vocational provision within schools, or through out-of-school placements, reduces their options for successful reintegration of persistent non-attenders.
Fifth, too few LEA teams are sufficiently focused on primary school intervention and preventative work. Likewise, too many staff are engaged in fire-fighting exercises with persistent non-attenders in Years 10 and 11.
Finally, staff are constantly finding that more and more home visits are proving difficult.
Too many parents not only condone their children's non-attendance, they often encourage it. For example, the number of holidays taken in term-time continues to increase. So does the level of professional abuse which some officers receive from parents.
It is, therefore, long overdue that this conscientious group of staff starts to receive the level of professional recognition and support which it deserves.
A review of the EWS in Wales would surely recommend minimum professional entry standards, appropriate initial and professional development training and the consistent use of the service throughout and across Wales.
Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal at Swansea institute of higher education and author of Truancy: Short and Long-Term Solutions