Breaking the habit of truancy: Donald MacLeod reports on the debate over the growing problem of school absences

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The Independent Online
'NAH, I'm not going, it'll be boring,' David says sullenly. But it becomes clear that the real reason he is going to skip a forthcoming residential course is that he is afraid of being bullied.

It may be just role playing in which David and 24 other young people on the Islington School Leavers' Project in north London are taking part, but it is acted with feeling; they are all long-term truants. Some have not been inside a classroom for two years. The reasons for bunking off school - and some solutions - emerge in these role plays, which are ostensibly about a residential course they are about to go on.

One feels unable to cope, another feels that he has to stay and look after younger siblings, a third is embarrassed about clothes and money. They have had confidence knocked out of them, June Jarrett, the director of the project, said. Much of the 15-week course, which includes work experience, is aimed at restoring confidence and getting them back into the habit of attending regularly, not to mention using rusty skills such as writing. Half of the last group went on to further education.

David, who said he had not written anything for three years, had been bullied at school. 'The teachers didn't do anything about it. I started bunking off in the third year and in the fourth year I didn't go at all. I used to work in the Chapel Market until my mum caught me.'

Sylvia and Lisa, twin sisters, played truant together from primary school, hanging around the flats where they lived or spending the day at a friend's house. 'I just didn't like the teachers,' Lisa said. 'They didn't give us much help. The tables were too noisy and I couldn't do my work.'

Others complain about disorderly classes but also, paradoxically, that they were picked on by teachers or treated as children. 'Once I smoked a cigarette in class and it wasn't the teacher that told me off,' Paul said.

On the project they are told that if they want to be treated as adults, they must start behaving like adults. 'Nobody is forced to stay, that's one of the reasons why they don't leave,' Ms Jarrett said.

Falling behind in coursework or homework is often found to be the start of truancy. 'There were too many pupils in the classroom. When I was falling behind with the work there was no one to help me catch up. All the other people were way ahead of me and I had to work in the corner away from the rest,' Jay said.

Darren found that English and geography were getting too much so he missed those lessons and then started skipping other days as well.

Janine found it impossible to start a new school in mid-year - she had been asked to leave her previous school - because she was embarrassed and felt she could not catch up with the work.

In many cases parents condone their children's absence, sometimes allowing them to work in the family business.

Ms Jarrett noted that many of the parents were truants themselves. 'That is what we are trying to break. If they go back into education, the chances are they will value education for their own children. If they don't, they will perpetuate the cycle.'

(Photograph omitted)