Dennis O'Keeffe: Truancy: it's not just the pupils who bunk off

Most official thinking on truancy is mistaken. Truants are not usually criminal as educational officialdom and the police believe. Nor do truants usually come from bad families. Nor do they dislike school. Nor are they mostly working class. We live in a middle-class society in which most secondary school children do some truanting. This means that most truants are middle class. There are inadequate, school-phobic children but they are a small minority and do not influence other children much.

Truancy does not usually lead to crime. True, most British criminals will have truanted; but linking this with crime is like saying drug addicts caught their habit from drinking tea. Truants are mostly not deviant, either. Deviance implies minorities whereas most teenagers do some truanting. Truants aren't all incompetent. Some are, mostly because they have been inadequately taught. Anyway, a lot of clever children truant, too, because their lessons are feeble or because they want to get on with subjects they care about. Many children are bored. The Qualification and Curriculum authority supplies teachers with very boring courses they scarcely dare to reject. In fact, could one name a single, successful educational quango?

My University of North London research in the 1990s showed widespread truancy in Britain. Recently, the research unit I run with Michael Connolly at Buckingham University, has revealed the vast truancy in the United States. Nor is truancy confined to English-speakers, as a walk around any French city in term-time will confirm.

In the late 1950s, the folly called "progressive education" was institutionalised. Pretending children have the same status as adults hasn't liberated them. It has taught many young people to despise their teachers and ignore their parents. Wrong teaching of English and mathematics since that time has also markedly worsened overall academic performance. Unfortunately, the official outlook is that school is a universal good which only inadequate or immoral people would ever shun.

The truth is that most truants do not shun it. They go to school most school-days and attend most lessons. If you dare to ask the children themselves, however, huge numbers will tell you they do not like certain subjects and certain kinds of teaching. If you use confidential questionnaires, their explanations are overwhelmingly educational. The excuse that truancy is caused by bad homes reflects an establishment bent on exonerating its errors.

Truancy levels would fall if schools were more competitive. Competition concentrates the mind. If there were more low-cost private schools, there would be less bunking off. Paying for things personally concentrates mind wonderfully. The Labour Party hates these truths because the truth is so anti-socialist. The Conservatives are more culpable; they know the reality but have no stomach for it. Both our main parties have been bunking off from the real world. Teenagers acknowledge reality by skipping rotten lessons. They also demonstrate by their absence from secondary school and class what poor primary education they got.

It's utopian to think that schools will ever be totally free of truancy. Schools without truancy are like marriages without conflict. There's no such thing. But a better curriculum, and more attention paid to children's reading and mathematics, would cut truancy down to a less shameful level.

The education establishment will not deal properly with truancy. It will not ask the right people about it, that is to say the children. And it refuses to count skipping lessons by children who have come to school as truancy at all. This is very silly. Refusing to go to class once you are at school, is truancy in very pure and undiluted form.

Some children skip class and hide on the school premises. Others go to parks and cafes. In those cases where school security has been tightened it is likely that truancy will increase because the children cannot get out so easily. Therefore, they won't come to school at all.

The education elite – senior civil servants, education professors, the Labour Party bosses – do care about standards. They want, above all, to equalise them. The only easy way to do this is to lower overall achievement, which is why we do have mixed ability teaching and don't have grammar schools. There should be an annual survey of schools shifting around the country collecting confidential truancy data.

Published without breaching confidentiality, this data would be invaluable to heads and subject-teachers and vastly preferable to syllabuses cooked up by the great and good in the latest quango.

The writer is professor of sociology at the University of Buckingham

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