Letter: Complex reasons behind truancy should be examined

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Sir: Following the Government's latest figures comparing non-

attendance rates between different schools ('Heads say figures for truancy do not add up', 17 November), many schools with high rates have rightly said that blanket rates can be a misleading indicator of a complex phenomenon.

Truancy as properly defined, that is the absence of a child from school without parental knowledge, is only one among a number of causes for school non-attendance. Absence from school with parents' knowledge accounts for another large group of cases which has a rather different origin. Absence with parents' knowledge can either be with or without their consent: there is a group of children, usually from families for whom academic progress is not a high priority, whose parents are happy to have their children off school to help around the house or to earn money.

There is another group who stay at home to try and hold together the family in some way, perhaps because of parental illness or incapacity. There is a third group which child psychiatrists term 'school refusal' where the failure to go to school is the result of a disorder of anxiety: usually because the child is anxious to leave home and parent but also sometimes because he or she is being victimised at school. In these latter cases the parents may be trying very hard to get the child into school without success.

These last 'school refusal' syndromes are much less likely to be related to social class factors and can occur in schools of all types and in all areas. Non-attendance due to truancy or parental collusion is much more likely to

be associated with lower socio- economic groups and lower academic success.

Schools are right to point to these differing causes and say that they as schools are not responsible by any means for all of them. However, I support the publication of the figures: they should lead to a more public examination of a serious problem, better recording of different causes of school non-

attendance, and may spur appropriate action. It is absurd, though, for blanket figures to be used to 'judge' schools.

Much of the non-attendance is linked to socio-cultural factors and there are probably limits to what schools can do. One piece of action of proven effectiveness that schools could take is to introduce an anti-bullying policy. As well as improving the general culture of schools it would reduce that proportion of non-attendance which is due to the terror of chronic victimisation.

Yours sincerely,


Senior Lecturer

Department of Child and

Family Psychiatry

University of Manchester


22 November