Don't blame truants - they're just making consumer choices

Education is supply-led. The only way a pupil can express dissatisfacti on is through absence
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The Independent Culture
DAVID BLUNKETT deserves congratulations for confronting truancy, where the previous government was slow in recognising the phenomenon and even more remiss in confronting it. But unless his initiative is preceded by hard self-critical thinking, to paraphrase The Leader, unless they are "tough on the causes of" truancy, their pounds 500m proposed spending will sink without trace into the sand.

Truancy, when as many as two-thirds of pupils in the top classes of the worst schools vote with their feet, is consumer-polling by the disenfranchised. Unlike most services and goods provided by the welfare state, which are demand-responsive, primary and secondary education are supply-led. The only way of expressing choice is by absence.

Schools and their education authorities are not held responsible for levels of truancy, for which truants and parents are allotted sole blame. The question: "Why do these young people refuse free education, which is considered a boon in most of the world?" is never asked. But until it is asked, it will not be answered.

One reason is that as the statutory school-leaving age was raised successively from 13 to 14, 15 and finally 16, as children grew into young adults, curricula were not adapted to meet their needs and tastes. Their bounden duty was to attend, the teachers' to teach; consideration of the need for marketing the service was taboo, since pupils and their parents were not seen as consumers but as subjects, or objects.

Middle and upper streams, with their different time-spans, see education as a ladder for vocational advancement; lower streams do not see it as such, and little or no effort is made to make it so for them. To do that would require not only considerable resources - much more than Mr. Blunkett's pounds 500m - but also a revolution in thinking, beginning from a consideration of the different qualities and destinations of pupils.

When I graduated after the war, I went into teaching, in an LCC school in what would now be called a deprived area. Among my classes were day- release pupils of 14 to 17 years of age. Post Office clerical-staff girls - whose school-leaving certificates had afforded them much better opportunities than their uncertificated sisters - came with a highly positive and co- operative approach to education, and were correspondingly easy to teach.

By contrast, my Gas Board apprentices hated school as an attempt to drag them back to childhood, but they were quite disciplined and co-operative at work, where they were treated as young adults and looked forward to becoming tradesmen.

At the time, none of these problems were taken into account by enthusiasts for raising the school leaving age, who happily, ascribed all opposition to reaction. They are now girding their loins to tackle symptoms, but have yet to advance beyond symptoms to causes. They can expect little real co-operation from the Education Department, LEAs, schools and police. In the first place, admission of the real magnitude of the problem would entail recognition that budgets are already swollen.

Secondly, where the choice is often between truancy and disruption or exclusion, schools naturally plump for the former. Thirdly, what is the point of leading a horse to water if it will not drink, of diluting classes with non-learners?

Fourthly, thanks to cranky doctrines and poor teaching, Britain faces an unprecedented situation: after several years of primary school, children remain functionally illiterate and innumerate and thereby incapable of following lessons in secondary schools and participating in class work.

Secondary schools blame primary schools, which blame social circumstances, though in my day, as a poor child in the East End of London, where real incomes were only a fraction of today's, functional illiteracy was almost unknown. Without remedy of glaring deficiencies in reading and arithmetical skills, absorption of truants into the system will remain unrealistic.

Compulsion, as proposed among others by Peter Mandelson in The Blair Revolution, is a non-starter.

The police have enough to do already, without acting as daily dog-catchers. If pressed hard enough, they will agree to undertake the task but give it low enough priority to avoid action.

Criminal sanctions, advocated by Mandelson, are quite unrealistic. In the first place, an above-average proportion of the parents of truants will be members of the welfariat who exercise little control over their children, whose fines would have to be paid by social security and who could not be imprisoned without violating their obligations to younger members of their brood.

The Left and bien pensants have long complained that criminalisation is applied excessively in Britain to a whole range of offences that need different treatment. To add children's truancy to the long list of criminal offences would wholly violate these sentiments.

It would therefore behove Mr Blunkett to make haste cautiously. The previous government's experience indicated that conference platforms are not the best place for making policy, as distinct from presenting policies worked out elsewhere; conference applause is no substitute for mature judgement. Instead of rushing to spend his - or rather our - pounds 500m Mr Blunkett would be better employed in setting up a unit to examine the problem in all its ramifications.

His starting-point could well be "Truancy in English Secondary Schools" prepared for the Education Department in 1993 by Dr Denis O'Keeffe of the University of North London, who first studied the problem in the late Eighties under the auspices of a short-lived think-tank I ran, while the department still emulated the three wise monkeys.

The unit's work would also be relevant to the establishment of special facilities for excluded children.

It must be intellectually courageous. Besides empirical studies, it must ask whether it might not be wise to waive the statutory leaving age for problem children who have work to go to.

Work is an educational process. By contrast, adolescents who are held away from work until they are 16 - but cannot be inducted into the learning process - become harder to induct into work after two or three wasted years.

True, this innovation would ride roughshod over many cherished dogmas and taboos; but how new is New Labour if it cannot carry its reforming zeal through to its logical conclusion?