Truancy rise blamed on 'boring and irrelevant' lessons

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Boring lessons are to blame for an increase in truancy rates, school inspectors warn today. National rates of truancy have risen for three years in a row – even though total absences from school, including those authorised by headteachers, have been pegged, says a report by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog.

Unauthorised absences from class have risen by nearly a third since 2003 – with the average youngster now skipping lessons three times a year. Put another way, there were more than 10 million occurrences of truancy in state secondary schools in the academic year 2005-06 – the most recent year for which records are available.

Ofsted inspectors studied the performance of 31 secondary schools in depth and found that the main reason given by pupils for skipping lessons was that they found the teaching dull and unstimulating, had difficulty getting on with particular teachers or catching up with work if they had been away. Many also said they did not believe what they were being taught was relevant to their needs in the outside world.

The statistics confirm a link between poor quality teaching and truancy rates. Sixty-two per cent of schools where inspectors judged lessons to be inadequate were also failing to tackle truancy, Ofsted said. In addition, 59 per cent of schools whose leadership was weak also had high levels of absenteeism.

"More needs to be done to tackle unauthorised absence and truancy," said Christine Gilbert, the chief schools inspector and chief executive of Ofsted. "High quality lessons, strong leadership and management and a curriculum that meets pupils' needs effectively can have a significant impact on attendance."

All truants gave the same main reasons for skipping classes, the report said. "They emphasised that some lessons were boring, difficulties getting on with particular teachers, difficulties catching up with work," it concluded. "A few said they experienced bullying which the school had not resolved effectively." Ofsted criticised schools for leaving it to individual teachers to arrange help for pupils who needed to catch up on work. Youngsters said they often had to rely on copying notes from classmates. "They found this dull and some of them avoided it where possible," it said.

The report went on to warn that the Government's attempts to crack down truancy – with fixed-penalty notices and persistent calling of truants' homes to tell their parents they had not turned up for school – had only a limited effect.

"The effect on the most disaffected students was limited," the researchers said. "Nevertheless, such sanctions send an important message to students and parents and are an important deterrent."

The study also established a link between truancy and poverty. Schools with the smallest percentage of pupils receiving free school meals had the lowest truancy rates.

Jailing parents does not work on the most persistent offenders

Yesterday's report said government sanctions – such as jailing the parents of persistent truants – had a limited effect on dealing with the most persistent offenders. The story of the first woman to be jailed under the ruling would appear to bear that out.

Patricia Amos, from Banbury, Oxfordshire, claimed that, after being sentenced to 60 days in prison for failing to send her daughters, Emma, 15, and Jacqui, 13, to school, the sentence had taught her a valuable lesson. However, 18 months later, she was jailed again for 28 days after her youngest daughter attended only 49 days out of 80 at secondary school.

In another case, Rosina Connor, a mother of seven children, who was pregnant with her eighth, was released halfway through a two-week sentence only to find her 14-year-old son, George, was skipping lessons at school again. "I did everything I could to ensure he went to school but he just did not want to go," she said.

The policy proved controversial with one judge branding as "pointless" an earlier decision to jail a mother for her daughter's absence.