Education: A skiver may be rational, not criminal: New studies reveal that truancy is still not accurately recorded, says Mark Handscomb

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The Independent Online
JENNY PRICE spends many a working day touring the council estates of Knowsley, Merseyside, searching for truants. 'When you confront parents with the child's absence from school, it can be very distressing,' she says. 'Especially if they don't know the child has skipped school.

'I've walked into homes to see whole families of children who should have been at school watching television. They think you are just interrupting their viewing, refuse to talk to you and walk off. You have to be a salesperson for education. And that's not easy in an area of high unemployment.'

Reactions vary. Staff have been shot at while attempting home visits. Others have been threatened by parents or bitten by dogs. Some people pretend not to be in and behave as they would when the bailiffs knock on the door to repossess furniture.

According to last year's white paper Choice and Diversity, there is 'little point' in having regularly inspected schools, good teachers and a well-taught and tested national curriculum if 'all our children do not attend, remain there and learn throughout the whole of the day'. For that reason schools will, from September, have to publish attendance figures.

Surveys by the Merseyside police suggest a direct link between truancy and crime. John Patten, now the Secretary of State for Education, was previously a Minister of State at the Home Office. About half of the joyriders, arsonists and thieves who came to his attention then had previously been truants.

However, Britain's largest survey of truancy, compiled by the University of North London, disputes the link between truancy and crime. Its author, Dennis O'Keeffe, submitted his report to ministers last week, and his conclusions have yet to be made public. But he regards truancy as a measure of a school's performance rather than an indicator of fledgling criminality. He views truants as 'rational consumers' who vote with their feet if they dislike lessons.

'Truants are not irrational, nail-biting, inadequate young people. They are perfectly sensible on the whole. Since they don't like certain subjects, they bunk off,' he says.

Dr O'Keeffe's study interviewed 40,000 pupils aged 14 to 16 in 150 schools - more than the National Foundation of Educational Research study published last week, which found that one in four 13-year-olds skipped lessons.

Dr O'Keeffe is concerned that when schools publish attendance figures in September, headteachers may adjust the statistics in their favour. He describes existing arrangements for recording attendance figures as a 'licence to tell fibs'.

His fears are shared by Mrs Price, secretary of the Chief Education Welfare Officers' Association. 'Because of the competition and league tables that the Government is so keen on, there will be an attempt by schools to minimise unauthorised absences,' she says.

A child might take a day off school to let in the gas man or celebrate a birthday. These should not qualify as legitimate reasons for absence; but some headteachers, according to Mrs Price, are prepared to accept such excuses as 'school-condoned absences'.

She adds: 'At least two secondary schools told me their attendance was 80 per cent and they didn't have any unauthorised absences. Medical reasons or holidays accounted for all their absences. Some schools think that as long as they have a note from the parents excusing their child then they can authorise the absence. They think it's all right to count an authorised absence as an attendance.

'Since regulations say the Education Welfare Service should deal with unauthorised absence, we wouldn't be doing any work at all in some schools. Yet these are often the schools where there are significant attendance problems.'

Mrs Price criticises derisory fines imposed by magistrates when parents are prosecuted. 'It's very dispiriting when the court levies an pounds 8 fine for non-attendances. Fines should surely be more serious than those for not having a television licence.'

Part of the problem is that education welfare is widely regarded as a fringe service. 'Some schools have seen us as just dogsbodies who act as school runners, collecting excuses from absent children,' says Mrs Price. 'Schools need to know there is someone who can help them follow up absences rapidly. They need someone who is independent, not paid by the school, who can act as a mediator between parents and school.'

Until last month the future of the Education Welfare Service was uncertain, but the Department for Education has dropped a plan to stop central funding, accepting that it would 'put at risk the ability of local education authorities to carry out their statutory functions'. Some councils, however, have considered economising by shedding education welfare officers.

New technology to record non- attendance is being tested in some schools. Swipe cards, lap- top computer registers and optical mark readers may improve surveillance methods, but they will not persuade children to come to school. Dr O'Keeffe and Mrs Price agree that computer registers and electronic clocking-in are only partial solutions. 'Schools need somebody who can go and find out what those reasons are,' says Mrs Price. 'Parents need somebody who can be a friend or an advocate.'

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