Truancy, where kids take off to the park or the shopping centre with their mates in preference to a double period of mathematics, is relatively rare compared to the vast number of days off "authorised" or condoned by parents.
Notes of explanation, assiduously pursued by teachers, are often no more than a written admission that parent and child are colluding in the absence. While the vast majority of children are faithfully sent off to school each day, a large number of habitual absentees are unwisely shielded from the system by their parents.
Assigning targets for attendance will undoubtedly have an impact on the statistics. Schools will scrutinise their returns more closely. This will be discounted, that will be included. Attendance will even feature more prominently in school priorities and in staff development programmes. At the end of the day, the rate of absence will reduce, as surely as the unemployment figures have tumbled. The entrenched habits of poor attenders will remain largely undisturbed.
Frances Ratcliffe is in the front line against absence in Holy Rood. She is employed as an auxiliary, but has a critical role in following up dodgy absences as soon as they occur. Every day, she receives a list of pupils under scrutiny from guidance and form teachers and relentlessly pursues them by telephone the same morning. Sometimes it is a case of letting anxious parents know that their child is not at school. Often, however, it amounts to putting pressure on parent and child simultaneously. In both circumstances, Frances is able to maintain a trusted link to the school, offering support and encouragement as required.
Janice Stewart, the education welfare officer, is the next line of defence. She has encountered generations of absentees during her many years of working with Holy Rood, and is not easily conned. She can recognise familiar patterns and react accordingly. Tending to concentrate on the more stubborn core of defaulters, she has recently been involved in an interesting project to determine attitudes to poor attendance among pupils who regularly come to school. Janice has found little understanding or tolerance of truancy among pupils who attend school faithfully, and is concerned that poor attenders may feel ostracised when she does succeed in getting them back to school.
Radical thinking will be required if we are to do any more than improve the absence statistics for popular consumption. There is a clear link between social deprivation and poor attendance at school, and economic measures may have some effect. Child benefit, for example, is currently paid out to millions of families who do not need it. It could be doubled and paid only to parents receiving benefit, on production of a voucher demonstrating 80 per cent attendance at school by their children. Exceptions could be made in real medical cases but not for those who simply have a predilection for distance learning.
Young people could be required to complete four years of secondary education. This may be the principle behind the status quo, with pupils currently required to remain until age 16. For some, it is sheer fantasy, as they blithely carry a 75 per cent absence rate from one year to the next. While "keeping pupils back" could lead to disaffected 27-year-olds struggling to get beyond first year, it would certainly concentrate the minds of those who want to enter the world of work at age 16, but are not prepared to complete the statutory period of secondary education.
The school has a role to play in providing an attractive and stimulating environment where young people can feel comfortable, involved and valued. The teaching has to be interesting and motivating, and progress has to be discernible to pupils and their parents. Monitoring procedures must be tight, with guidance and support available when problems arise. Even with all this in place, we are still at the mercy of pupils and their parents where attendance is concerned. In Holy Rood we have a good school, great pupils and staff, supportive parents but ... absence makes the heidie ponder.
Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh