Meet Dave, the gentle truant-buster

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It's 8.30am and Dave Hough, education social worker, is preparing to leave his shabby office over a fashion shop just off east London's Commercial Road. A bitter wind rattles the litter across the pavement as we wait for the bus to take us towards Harford Street, one of Tower Hamlets' referral units for pupils who are persistent truants or who cannot cope with mainstream schools.

A tramp through the streets brings us to the unit where Dave is to review the progress of Mike (not his real name) with Mike's father and staff at the unit. We wait for half an hour. No father. No Mike. Dave looks neither annoyed nor surprised.

Mike, he says, is under an education supervision order imposed by the family proceedings court. That requires Mike, his parents and Dave to co-operate in sorting out Mike's education. He is 14 and has truanted ever since he started secondary school. Until the previous week, he seemed to be progressing well at the unit, which he attends for four half days a week. "He's attended more in the three months he's been here than in the whole of the previous twelve."

Then, for reasons nobody really understands, he started stealing from home and ran away. He is already under a criminal supervision order. Now his father is threatening to turn him over to social services and have him put into care. "He has very caring parents who just don't know what to do," says Dave.

Chris, head of reintegration at the unit, and Dave discuss what went wrong. Is it drugs? No evidence of that, says Chris. It may be, says Dave, that he's angry with his family. Or, if he has sold the stolen goods, that he gets a buzz out of that which outweighs the "downer" he gets from his father's anger.

Dave says he will have to go and see his father to calm him down and to change his mind about Mike and care. Mike is due to take an exam the following day. He is quite bright and is expected to do well. Before we leave, Dave phones his father, who promises to try to get Mike to the exam, if he can find him. "It could be the ice-breaker we need," Dave says, matter-of-factly, as we head out on to the streets again.

Dave is one of 12 Tower Hamlets education social workers who cover a school population of 29,000 with a truancy rate of 2 per cent. He has been doing the job since 1983, though he didn't acquire his qualification (an MSc from the London School of Economics, which includes a social work certificate) until five years ago. He now has responsibility for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. His enthusiasm is undiminished and he particularly enjoys what he is doing today - visiting families.

He also enjoys walking. As we battle against the wind past bleak flats, he explains that his next call is to Tony Mansfield, one of his success stories. Tony, now 15, was taken out of primary school and sent to a special school because he was thought to be emotionally disturbed. He flourished there and eventually, at his own request, was transferred to a mainstream secondary school.

That proved a disaster. He got into bad company, was disruptive and ended up back at the special school, where he started a fire. Now he is receiving individual tuition at home, preparing to take exams in May, hoping to go to college in September and become a car mechanic. When we arrive, Dave asks Sue, his mother, how things are. She says a nightmare is over.

"He used to stay up until 5am reading and then not get up until three in the afternoon. I used to go out in the morning like a demented woman, screaming, trying to get him up . He was in a downward spiral."

Tony says: " I didn't want a life like that, getting up and going to school. I couldn't work in a school where my friends were. I don't want to see them any more. I'm much calmer now." Sue says that Tony has to want to do something for himself. It's no good telling him. Dave says the difference with Tony now is that he makes choices and he has chosen to work . He asks Tony whether he thinks he will cope at college when he will be in a group again.

"Yes. Because school was a kind of social thing. I have seen now it's necessary to get an education."

"How did you feel about his progress review?" Dave asks Sue. "Elated," she says. "Were you pleased?" he asks Tony. "I suppose so," says Tony. "I knew what I'd done but to hear other people say it sounded better."

Dave turns to Chris, Tony's eldest brother, who has been very critical of Tony in the past and says that it was good to see him and Tony's father waiting at the end of the review. "Because there hasn't been that much contact between yourself and Dad, has there Tony?"

Before we leave, Dave asks Sue about Richard, one of Tony's older brothers. Richard, who shares a room with Tony, is a diagnosed schizophrenic. Much of his paranoia is directed at Tony. He stands in the corner of the room if Tony is there and tells him to shut up before he has spoken. Sue says Richard has a hospital appointment to be assessed. Outside the house, Dave explains that he asked Sue about Richard because it affects Tony, but "it's very important to keep the child at the centre of the case".

Lunchtime. We walk back to the office, eat a Bangladeshi kebab, and are off again within three quarters of an hour.

This time, the visit is to a single mother with four children, three of whom have statements of special educational needs. The youngest, aged 10, is emotionally disturbed and has Attention Deficit Syndrome, which means he cannot concentrate.

Dave has bad news for his mother. The residential special school they visited and liked last week has decided that it cannot cope with the son and they will have to hunt for another place. Dave points to a window in the flat broken by the 10-year-old. "When we get in, you'll see the other things he's done," Dave says.

But when we reach the door, there's a note from the mother saying that there is an "emergency" with the 10-year-old and she has had to go out. The note also says that his father has been around, that she doesn't trust him and wants Dave's advice on what to do. With the wind whistling around the tower block, Dave writes a reply saying he will make another appointment. The same happened on his last visit in even colder weather, he says. He is worried by the news about the father, who goes round to the school and abuses the teachers. "It gives all the wrong messages about school attendance," he says.

The last call is to Mrs B, whose twin nine-year-olds are in a special school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. Dave has to persuade her to turn up at her sons' annual review the following day. "This won't be easy," he says.

Once inside be explains that it's very important she comes because one of the boys is probably ready to move back to a mainstream primary school and no decision about his future can be taken without his parents. Can she persuade Mr B to come, too, because he also has parental responsibility? He's checked with the head and they can bring the baby. There's no need to be nervous.

He repeats his point, in different ways, at least half a dozen times and, each time, she agrees to come. Mrs B complains to him that the boys have a problem at school with one of the teachers. Dave promises to sort it out. She also tells him that she is desperate to be rehoused: there are four boys sleeping in one room and a gang of 11 and 12-year-olds hangs about at the bottom of the stairs selling reefers to children at 25p a time. Dave makes a note to ring the estates officer. Will she turn up? Dave crosses both sets of fingers as we leave. We walk back to the office for a meeting of all the members of Dave's team. The support and help of colleagues is very valuable, he says.

As I leave at 5pm, he is settling down to write up the day's records.

How does he keep so cheerful? "Some children who don't attend school do end up at college and make a success of their lives. You can make a difference to people's quality of life. It just takes time. You have to believe that."


Mike did not turn up for his exam but is now back at home.

Mrs B did not attend her sons' annual review. Dave spoke to the school and the estates office about her complaints.

Dave and Tony had a day at a motor show for Tony's termly treat.