Truancy: So, why aren't you in school then?

Truancy rates are at an all-time high - despite the Government spending nearly £1bn in an attempt to crack the problem. Hilary Wilce investigates what's going wrong
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The Independent Online

Truancy rates have broken a new record. Last year almost 1.4 million pupils skipped lessons, nearly half a million more than 10 years ago. This has happened despite close to £1bn being poured into the problem by the Government, including measures which have seen the parents of some offenders jailed.

So what is going on here? Why are more children out of the classroom? And why is it proving so hard to get them back?

The answers to these questions are important, because truancy affects everyone. Every day a child is out of school means more underachievement, more antisocial behaviour, and a greater likelihood of crime and imprisonment later on.

However, education experts protest that last year's headline-grabbing figures are not as bad as they seem.

In East Sussex, where truancy rates have been falling for the past four years, Penny Lavan, principal education welfare officer, has looked closely at the data from her area "and in all bar six of 200 schools the rise in absences was related to illness. In the spring term two different viruses were circulating - they've been identified by the Department of Health to the Department for Education and Skills as being statistically significant - and if a parent didn't contact the school to say their child was sick then those absences stay unauthorised."

In addition, pressure on schools to get good results has led to a rise in what they are reporting. Whereas a head might once have turned a blind eye to parents taking children on holiday in term time, today that is likely to go down on the truancy figures.

But that still leaves the fact that a shocking 55,000 children are out of school each day, despite millions spent trying to get them back. And the reason seems to involve schools and society at large. What goes on in the classroom increasingly turns lower-achieving children off, while growing social fragmentation and poverty are leading to more family problems.

This is particularly true at primary level, where a small but worrying increase in truants is flagging up an increase in parents who either can't or won't get their children to school - young children almost never bunk off by themselves.

"But truancy and absenteeism is always the presenting problem, not the real one," says Jan Tallis, who is a chief executive of the charity School-Home Support. "Low-income, isolated families have many problems. Suppose you're a single parent, or your husband's a bus driver, and he's on the early shift, and you have three or four children and one of them's sick. How are you going to get the others to school?

"Then you have parents who are recent immigrants, who might have come from a war zone, and who might be terrified to let their children out of sight. Or there might be housing problems, or domestic violence, where a parent wants to hang on to her child for comfort. Or you get something like Jeans for Genes Day, where every child has to take a pound to school to wear jeans, and you're a parent with three children and you haven't got three pounds, so it's just easier to keep them at home.

"Then what happens is that children get out of the habit of going to school, and they fall behind, and they get demotivated, or they're called thick, and that's a latch for bullying, so that keeps them out even more."

The charity places support workers in schools in London and Yorkshire to help parents overcome problems. The work is painstaking and often slow, but it brings clear improvements in attendance, along with other benefits. The importance of such link workers was highlighted in last year's Steer report on behaviour in schools and the Government is now embarking on a £40m pilot project to put similar workers in 600 schools in 20 local authorities nationwide.

But once children are in school there are other problems. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says tests at seven, 11 and 14, coupled with a curriculum for older children that leaves many out of the loop, have made children vote with their feet. "We need to celebrate children's achievements even if they're not getting that magic level four, and in the 14 to 19 context we need to provide an education that does not turn them off." There are rumours, he says, that proposals for a diploma system catering for all students, which were rejected last year, are being looked at again by the Government. "And I, for one, would really welcome that."

Nick Gibb, the shadow Minister for Schools, believes that getting every child reading fluently, so they don't fall behind, is essential, and that subjects must be streamed. "If you have a mixed-ability class you get boredom at the top and frustration at the bottom, and then of course children are going to play up and feel disaffected.

"And discipline is important, too. If you have a calm atmosphere with clear boundaries children feel safe and unstressed. We have got to see that throughout the school system," the MP says.

He also has a low opinion of parents who want to take their holidays in term time. "Of course it's cheaper, but education is so important. I'd say, if you can't afford it, then go to Bournemouth, not Majorca!"

However, a London mother who has recently been told she could be reported to education welfare officers for taking her child to Africa this autumn to meet the child's father, argues that this must be considered case by case. "I understand the pressure head teachers are under, but sometimes you just can't choose when you can go."

Schools now use a range of measures to tighten up on truancy. Lynda Miller, head of Hither Green Primary School in south London (see box, right), says her school uses first-day phone calls to chase up children who are not in school, letters home, meetings with parents, attendance rewards, and congratulation notices in the newsletter, but that it is important to find a balance between keeping the pressure up and keeping parents onside. "Now parents tend to come and ask me if they can take their children out of school. But they have to understand that if their children aren't in school they just can't do well. One parent wanted to take their child to a birthday party in Birmingham on a Friday. I said no. I mean, a birthday party! Why couldn't it be on a Saturday? But this sort of thing is a problem that cuts across all cultures and all classes."

Police sweeps and threatening parents with legal action are also having an impact. The Government claims that targeting 13,000 persistent truants in 200 schools where truancy is high has led to a 27 per cent drop in truanting numbers.

"My authority has a high level of unauthorised absences," says Penny Lavan, "and we run a programme of about 20 to 25 planned police sweeps a year. We've also changed the way we work. Education welfare officers have traditionally done casework, but now we work much more strategically with schools. Parents whose children are out of school have to attend an attendance panel and they are given targets and a timescale to improve attendance. At the same time, they can ask for help if they need it. They are given 12 weeks to get better and after that they are fast-tracked into the court system."

Of 1,200 references to attendance panels, she says, only 100 parents have gone into the court system. "A minority of parents definitely need special support, but for the vast majority, our system works."

'Non-attendance is a symptom. It's about poverty and cultural differences'

Like many schools in socially and racially mixed neighbourhoods, Hither Green Primary School in south London battles to get its attendance up. But school-home support worker Christine Bruton has seen big changes since she arrived a year ago.

"When I came here there were six or seven pages of children whose attendance was below 80 per cent. Now there's just one, and a significantly higher number are on 100 per cent."

A former senior teacher, Bruton works in two primary schools, dealing intensively with about 15 families, and others in a more low-key way. She also liaises with agencies and runs courses for parents. "Non-attendance is always a symptom. It's about poverty and cultural differences. Things are so complex these days. It's like peeling an onion. When you get involved you unpeel layer after layer of problems.

"For one thing, we underestimate the mobility of families now. And often when children aren't in school, people don't even know where they are. In areas where there are a lot of private landlords people can get thrown out overnight, and then school isn't the first thing on a parent's mind.

"Global issues affect schools, too. I've dealt with families caught up in the troubles of both the Lebanon and Sri Lanka. Many children carry a heavy weight of care and are being used as interpreters, so they might have to go with a family member to hospital. Or a child might need new shoes but have to wait until the money comes along to buy them.

"Then there are mothers who are frightened to let go of their baby. That's also about their sense of self-worth. And there are parents whose own experience of school hasn't been good. And there's a lot of substance misuse. Parents can lose all sense of time. I've had to buy alarm clocks for children, and been round to their houses to get them in for SATs.

"There was one family whose attendance was very erratic, but now the children are all in school and blossoming. The mother was into substance misuse and the father had died. The grandmother agreed to take them on, and she has needed a lot of support. But I really believe that without our service those three children would have been in care. I once calculated that I'd probably saved the Government £300,000 on that family alone!

"I honestly believe that it's rare to find a parent who doesn't want better for their child, and a coaching approach is the best way to deal with that, so it's good that the Government wants to put more support workers in schools. But I do hope they realise that you need to be very skilled at doing it. Because if you're not, you could actually make things worse."