'Truancy was a way to resist time's tyranny'

Nicola Sheldon, 50, an ex- sixth form college principal, is doing a DPhil in social history at Oxford

My research looks at truancy in the early 1900s from two points of view - how did the way in which truancy was treated change; and why did some families become persistent truants? The former looks at local-authority policy and practice; the latter means examining causes.

I'm interested in conformity and resistance to conformity. Compulsory schooling is a long-term intervention in family life. In the late 19th century, school imposed a regime of punctuality, and this was happening in other areas, too: the casual labour force was disappearing, it was the time of the factory clock, and life was becoming more regulated. For some, truancy was a form of deliberate resistance to this, and there is a strain of anti-authoritarianism that goes right back in British working-class life.

During my MSc in economic and social history, I did a case study of truancy rates at primary schools in Oxford and York between 1870 and 1904, when state education was first introduced (school became compulsory in 1880). A family would have a visit from a school attendance officer - or "kid catcher" - and be given a warning card. They could then be called for an interview, followed by a court summons. Those convicted faced a five-shilling fine; in some cases children were sent to residential industrial schools.

Families had to pay fees (which weren't abolished until 1891), so poverty was an issue. Fees ranged from a penny to six pennies a week. If you bear in mind that a family's income could be 18 shillings a week, and that there might be five children, then this was a lot.

For my doctorate, I'm looking at a broader historical period. In the 1920s there was a move towards more of a social work approach. Truancy became an issue of "maladjustment", rather than just people disobeying the law. This time I'm using examples from Oxford, Shropshire, Birmingham and Bradford. Poverty was a big element in the first period I looked at, but the majority of poor families sent their children to school, so I knew it must be poverty plus something else. So I'm starting to look at family circumstances, and the position of the truanting child. In some cases the truants were girls who had to help at home, or the middle children.

These issues still have relevance; in Oxfordshire parents have been prosecuted for their child's truancy and sent to prison. This might shock them, but it doesn't solve the problem. Truancy remains a sensitive issue and something that can be difficult to talk about because we are conditioned to think that school is important.