Teenage truancy rises despite new laws

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The Independent Online

Levels of truancy, serious offending, drinking and smoking are rising among teenagers, and more are falling victim to crime, according to a study of classrooms in England and Wales.

Levels of truancy, serious offending, drinking and smoking are rising among teenagers, and more are falling victim to crime, according to a study of classrooms in England and Wales.

Although most youngsters stay on the straight and narrow during their secondary school years, the results paint a graphic picture of the pressures and temptations they face in 2004.

The survey of 4,715 youngsters aged 11 to 16 suggests progress is being made on rehabilitating the most troublesome ones, but that mainstream schools are struggling to contain rising rates of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Ministers will be disappointed that highly publicised initiatives against truancy, including the threat of prison for parents whose children regularly skip lessons, seem to have failed.

The research, by Mori for the Youth Justice Board in 192 schools, found more than a quarter of young people (26 per cent) had "bunked off" for a least one day, compared with 22 per cent last year and in 2002.

There is little difference in the likelihood of boys or girls deliberately missing school, although the levels increase with age, with 13 per cent of 11-year-olds saying they had truanted, rising to 39 per cent of 15- and 16-year-olds. Making the link between truancy and juvenile crime, the survey reveals that 45 per cent of young offenders have played truant, compared with 18 per cent of those who have not committed an offence.

Two-thirds (67 per cent) of secondary school age children told Mori they had drunk alcohol, a sharp increase from the 43 per cent recorded in 2002, and 25 per cent said they had smoked tobacco, up from 21 per cent two years ago.

But use of illegal drugs appears to have levelled, with 15 per cent saying they had taken cannabis and 5 per cent using solvents (both up 1 per cent), and 3 per cent taking amphetamines (again up 1 per cent). The survey found a connection between drug-taking and crime, with nearly a quarter of youngsters excluded from school admitting they had taken a class-A drug.

"Drug-taking among young people is also linked to truanting from school, as young people who have ever played truant from school are considerably more likely to say they have used drugs or alcohol," the researchers added.

A total of 26 per cent of youngsters said they had committed a criminal offence in the previous 12 months, which breaks down to 31 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls. The overall figure is the same as the past three years, pointing to resistance to initiatives on youth offending by the Government.

But there is evidence that the crimes committed by teenagers are becoming more serious, with increases in theft, burglary and carrying a weapon. Almost two in five black young people (37 per cent) admit offending, compared with a quarter of whites (26 per cent) and one in five Asians (20 per cent).

And three in five (60 per cent) of young people excluded from mainstream education admit they have offended, although there is evidence they are committing fewer serious crimes and reoffending less.

Just under half of young people (49 per cent) reported being a victim of crime,up from 46 per cent last year. They were most likely to have been threatened, bullied or had property stolen.

A criminal justice source said that he had been most struck by the increase in truancy. He said: "The Government has made a song and dance about the issue, but these results show it has had a miserable impact."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "These figures give a grim picture of teenagers playing truant and drinking in shopping arcades. This lifestyle is often the first step towards a life of crime and the Government now has to get a grip on this generation."