The latest figures show that more children than ever are bunking off school. Almost a quarter of secondary pupils play truant at some time, and, on any day, around 50,000 are missing. Schools in inner London have the worst record, but the problem is acute also in Yorkshire and Humberside, the East Midlands and the North-west. Recent increases have occurred in spite of a government target to reduce truancy by a third between 1998 and 2002, revised down to just 10 per cent for 2004.
The Government's response to these depressing figures is more of the same. More sweeps of shopping malls by police and education welfare officers. More use of fixed-penalty fines for parents. More fast-tracking to the courts, where parents can be jailed, as in recent high-profile cases.
But this is to look down the wrong end of the telescope. In focusing on irresponsible parents who take children out of school for the odd day's shopping or for cheaper holidays, the Government is not paying enough attention to the reasons why some children persistently play truant.
We require young people to go to school between the ages of five and 16, not as a form of imprisonment, but because we believe that it will be hugely beneficial to their lives. If an appreciable number of children, by voting with their feet, tell us that this is not how it looks to them, we should take notice. Truanting can be entirely rational. If a young person's abilities are such that, however hard they work, they can only hope to get a few low-grade GCSEs, which count for very little, then why bother? A recent study of gang culture on Tyneside found that some teenagers deliberately failed exams - better, in their view, not to show up at all than be branded as thick.
The Government is said to be pinning its hopes for making upper secondary education more attractive on the Tomlinson report. But this is almost certainly misplaced. While improvements to practical education would allow a broader range of talents to be developed, Tomlinson proposes to bundle the vocational with the academic in a monolithic hierarchy of diplomas. There is likely, therefore, to be an even greater temptation for those at the bottom to get out from under.
But there is a more pernicious strand in truancy. A teacher rang me to say: "Do you not realise that some children are just too scared to go to school?" Bullying is an acknowledged problem. The Government has attempted to crack down through a national Anti-Bullying Alliance and by requiring schools to have policies. But however good these look on paper, their practical effect is limited. Truancy, and, in extreme cases, suicide, arising from bullying are sharp reminders of the decline in discipline in schools.
The Government is piloting a number of behaviour-improvement projects consisting, essentially, of a film, training materials and access to experts. But discipline in some secondary schools is so out of hand that it may require something more fundamental, even a reconsideration of children's rights.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child stresses, among other things, that children everywhere have the right "to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation". But harmful influences can emanate from another child or group of children, and in these circumstances, it often seems that the bullies are protected more than their victims.
The gangs in some of our schools flout the rules because they think - not without some justification - that they are untouchable. Penalties such as detention are so hedged with conditions that they are difficult to apply. A carefully codified set of effective sanctions that teachers could use with the full backing of the law would be a major step towards improving discipline, with benefits beyond reducing truancy and improving teacher retention, to underpinning a more civilised society.
Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of BuckinghamReuse content