Children can bunk off for good reasons

THIS WEEK's outcry over truancy makes me uneasy. The nationally available figures do show that in some city areas missing school has reached epidemic proportions. But what concerns me is the way in which truants - simply school-age children - seem to be being labelled as quasi-criminals: marginalised youngsters moping around the fringes of society, looking for shops to pilfer, houses to break into and small children to brutalise. This creates a climate that fosters a call for punitive sanctions, rather than more child-centred and humane solutions. Already John Patten, the Education Secretary, is talking grimly about a crackdown.

What the debate so far fails to acknowledge is that truancy is actually an understandable part of being a teenager. Who has not done it themselves? When I was at school, I certainly bunked off. My reason was simple. I did not want to play hockey on our exposed hilltop playing field, where the wind swept in from the damp Severn estuary. The opportunity to go missing presented itself because we had to walk there from school, bearing ghastly boots, hockey sticks and kit. A friend's warm house nearby or cosy coffee bar were infinitely more attractive.

I was caught because the games mistress unexpectedly called the register. The headmistress ticked us off. If I could also have found a way to miss needlework, I would have done so with enthusiasm. I remember refusing to get out of bed one morning because I'd failed to complete a buttonhole. I still ponder those nightmarish needlework lessons and wonder why they didn't teach me something useful for later life, like how to make curtains.

If you listen to what truanting children have been saying this week, the same sort of message comes through. They felt like a holiday from school. They sat in parks, other children's houses, rode on buses. More pertinently, some said they'd had trouble with certain teachers and lessons. We all know that some schools have teachers who are badly prepared and poor at motivating and educating their charges. I can well imagine there are also children who have little drive or incentive to learn. But is it right to pile the blame on children, when poor teaching must play a part in all of this?

The point is that if we recognise that it is quite natural for children to try to duck out of lessons from time to time, then we should not make the remedies so heavy-handed that they feel it is worse to be caught and forced to go back. Truanting children should be asked in a kindly manner why they did a bunk. This may well expose problems with certain teachers and subjects.

At the same time it is the clear duty of parents and schools to act as a countervailing force, to devise systems that make sure you can't get away with bunking off. The widely varying rates - from zero in the Scilly Isles to 87 per cent in one Lambeth school, however unfairly collected - show that some checks are inadequate. This is not a problem confined to state schools, either. It is partly a function of size and location: how much harder to track down the reasons for every non-attending child in a school of 1,200.

An obvious and modern solution would be for us to copy an American idea and issue pupils with plastic cards, to clock up attendance as they enter classrooms. A central computer would instantly pick up who was missing.

Mr Patten should remember as he devises his crackdown that this must take account of social factors. Some parents themselves are keeping children out of school for more than the permitted 10 days per year in order to take package holidays. This is not something I would do, but it is something I understand. It is not until you have school- age children that you realise how holiday rates virtually double during any form of break, half-term included. This makes the dash for the sun in peak time prohibitively expensive for many people.

Equally, there are struggling single parents - without access to any form of state help, as we know so well - terrified of losing their jobs, who keep older children at home in emergencies to help with sick younger children. Yes, truancy is wrong. There is too much of it. But don't let us get it out of proportion.