Truancy? We won't have it

The Government is pouring money into fighting truancy - with very limited success. Julie Wheelwright visits a south London primary to see how it has tackled the problem
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Some mornings, Natasha Jules gets a hoarse voice. A former school secretary, she is responsible for ensuring that every child (and she knows all 457 by name) gets through the iron gates of Edmund Waller primary school in New Cross, south London. "You'll often see me at 9am, shouting in the street," she says. "I've got one girl in Year Three who's petrified of being late because I once rang the bell over her head all the way here. She certainly gets here on time now."

Some mornings, Natasha Jules gets a hoarse voice. A former school secretary, she is responsible for ensuring that every child (and she knows all 457 by name) gets through the iron gates of Edmund Waller primary school in New Cross, south London. "You'll often see me at 9am, shouting in the street," she says. "I've got one girl in Year Three who's petrified of being late because I once rang the bell over her head all the way here. She certainly gets here on time now."

Getting children through the school gates might seem like a school's most basic function but a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report found that truancy rates were unchanged since 1997. Still smarting from these findings, the Government is spending another £560m this year on schemes ranging from prosecuting parents of persistent truants to behaviour improvement programmes and on-site attendance and welfare officers. The Opposition says these measures are a waste of money while heads say they have helped them tackle the hard core of persistent officers.

The NAO report highlighted the need to stop children developing the truancy habit at primary school. When Jules became community development worker at Edmund Waller, truancy and lateness were lingering problems. The new head, Graham Jameson, believed that the key to tackling absences lay in fostering relations between the school and the parents. Parents don't see Jules as an authority figure but as somebody who fights their corner.

Sometimes she literally has her hands full. "We had a child aged about 10 who would get to the school gate and refuse to come in. He would hold on to his mum's car, he would start shaking and crouch on the ground, do whatever he could not to come in." Jules would pick up her "refuser" and carry him into the schoolyard. She would talk to him quietly, helping him to build up the courage to walk into the classroom.

Jules discovered that the boy had vomited in class one day. He was convinced that the other children were laughing at him and was traumatised at the thought of returning to the class with the other students who had witnessed his humiliation. "Refusers are usually children for whom something's changed at home and they're looking for extra attention," she says. "Usually they are younger, Years One or Two."

One girl had changed school four times and witnessed her mother being physically abused. "She did not feel like she fitted in at all and would go to all sorts of lengths to avoid going to school. She would shout and scream at her mum that she wasn't going to go." Jules agreed with the girl's mother that when these hysterics erupted, she would ring the school for help. "As soon as I appeared at their flat, the girl would say, 'I'm ready to go Miss Jules', and I would frogmarch her to school."

But aside from ensuring the girl attended, Jules saw that she had opportunities to make friends by putting her in clubs and holiday play schemes. After appearing at the girl's home three or four times, the problem was solved.

This was a marked change from life under the previous head where Jules could only ring up parents to find out why their children weren't in school. "The parent might make an excuse or you couldn't get through to them, but we never had an ethos of being proactive," she says, "Later the word got round that we weren't having it any more and if someone stops you in the street, they'll ask why you're there." It was a change of direction and it worked.

According to the head Graham Jameson, while most parents quickly get the message that if their child misses school, it will affect their life chances, there are a minority who don't. "These parents keep their children at home to look after younger children or because they have a medical condition themselves." In a previous headship Jameson remembers a mother telling him that she kept her child off school because she had agoraphobia. "But I saw her at Sainsbury's buying drink one day, with the child," he says. "I asked, 'how's the agoraphobia?' Then I went round, knocked on the door and said, 'the child's got to come to school'."

Despite dealing with such difficult cases, Jameson says personal intervention works better than threats of prosecution. "The government is driven by the idea that for every problem, there's a policy solution," he says. "But you need to face up to parents, not put them in prison."

Jameson's office contains a tent made of colourful batiks where any student can go to chill out. "It enables children to find a space that's away from whatever is distressing them," he explains.

Alyson Russen, head at Millbank primary, a Westminster school praised by the NAO for its improved attendance, agrees with Jameson that threatening parents is ineffective. ""I can't imagine issuing a fixed penalty notice," she says. "We're a softer, friendly and more ethos based."

Her softly-softly approach has worked. When Russen became head in 1994, attendance was 91 per cent; it has now risen to 95 per cent. At Millbank, Russen keeps a list of children whose attendance is causing concern and the minute they are absent, she picks up the phone. "The parents might say he had a bad night and I'll say I'm very sorry about that, but then I go into why that child has to come in." Russen has endured uncomfortable meetings where parents burst into tears over a poor attendance record and protest that they are trying their best. Russen gives no quarter.

The big concern is that if younger children begin a pattern of missing school an pick up the attitude that learning isn't important, they may get lost at secondary school. "Negative patterns can be broken at primary school - 'I can't be bothered to get up because it's dark and cold and wintry' - you can break that," says Russen. "You can really motivate children. But those good motivators come up against dangerous motivators at secondary school."

There are, however, LEAs that have found fixed penalty notices and the threat of prosecutions have had a dramatic effect. In Birmingham persistent truants were identified and 800 letters sent to their parents during the summer term last year. They were told that if their child's attendance improved the threat would be revoked. Eventually only 30 fixed pentalty notices were issued. Around 7,500 parents are prosecuted every year for failing to ensure their child attends school.

Westminster LEA is also piloting a scheme that uses the threat of "fast track to prosecution" to tackle persistent truants. At two local secondary schools, students who have less than 80 per cent attendance or a frequent pattern of unauthorised absence are identified and their parents asked to attend meetings to agree an action plan. Then the student's attendance is monitored over a six week period. If there is no improvement, the parents face prosecution as a last resort.

Most heads agree that sticks are needed as well as carrots but that for the most troubled families, prosecutions have little effect. One secondary school head in south London says that these parents need to re-learn the value of education. "The persistent truants cut across the social spectrum but what they have in common is a relationship at home that has broken down," he says. "I haven't come across a case where a prosecution ever got a child back in school. When you get these severe cases where a parent is prosecuted, there's something far more fundamental that needs to be addressed."

The Government has also had mixed success with its behaviour improvement programme operating in 61 LEAs. But John Bangs, education officer of the National Union of Teachers, says the verdict is still out on their value. "The link between reducing truancy and the effectivness of the programme is not obvious," he says. "It has helped teachers with low levels of disruption but not with truancy."

While Ruth Kelly has stated her commitment to reducing truancy, Alyson Russen believes that there is only so much a school can do. "We did make a difference over a period of time," she says. "But there are no quick fixes, it hinges on relationships and it just takes time."

education@independent.co.uk

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