When pupils aren't where they should be: The truancy battle will be lost unless attendance regulations are redrafted, says Susan Elkin

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CIVIL libertarians, it is reported, are trying to obstruct John Patten's anti-truant initiative, advising truants that they are committing no offence and should ignore anti-truancy patrols. Such advice is a service to no one, least of all the children. The failure by alarmingly high numbers of pupils to be where they should be has become one of the most far-reaching educational and social scourges of this generation.

Mr Patten's recent announcement that pounds 4m would be added to the current pounds 10m budget for extra education welfare officers and computerised registration systems was a significant step in the right direction. Absenteeism is certainly linked with low standards of achievement. A child who is not at school is cut off from formal learning. There seems, moreover, to be an impenetrable downward spiral: schools with high absence rates are often poor schools. Do the pupils stay away because the school is substandard or is the school unsatisfactory because its students absent themselves?

Clearly, the problem needs to be tackled from both ends, but to argue, as some teaching union leaders have done, that the 'truancy money' should be spent on 'improving' schools (by which I presume they mean teachers' salaries) as a way of reducing truancy is nave.

Low academic standards are not the only product of school absenteeism. Idleness breeds bad behaviour. Truants start on street corners and, at worst, finish in prison cells. There is no more graphic illustration of this than the convictions for murder of Robert Thompson and Jonathan Venables.

We must, therefore, find ways to change attitudes. For a start, without going down the silly political correctness route, responsible people should take care with the language they use to discuss it. Take 'playing truant', for example. Truancy is not a game and should always be treated seriously. Then there are the casual colloquialisms - 'skiving', 'hopping it', 'legging it', 'sagging', 'bunking off' and so forth. These are in common use not only by children but by teachers, social workers, parents and the media. Even Nigel de Gruchy, who as general secretary of National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers should know better, has used the expression 'playing hookey'. Use of such words trivialises truancy, thus, to an extent legitimising it.

The sober and simple truth is that education is compulsory for every child in Britain between the ages of five and 16. To condone or make light of it, even obliquely, is to go along with an illegality. By law children may miss school only with permission and/or for a 'good' reason.

What constitutes an 'authorised absence' is a vexed question. It is supposed to be one that the school permits and is sanctioned by the parent. This is fine in theory. In practice, though, it is a minefield which is open to so many varieties of imaginative interpretation that the truancy figures in the league tables - such a good idea in themselves - are highly misleading. It is clearly in the interests of a school to 'authorise' as much of its absence as possible lest its truancy rate seem disproportionately high. I suspect that the high figures revealed in last autumn's league tables were, in fact, a gross underestimate.

The only way a truancy league table could possibly provide meaningful comparative data would be if a school were simply required to give one basic figure: the total number of recorded absences for any reason whatsoever. Popped into the Department for Education's computer with the total number of pupils on the school roll, it could then be presented as a percentage. For there's the rub: there are far too many 'legitimate' reasons for children to be out of school.

Children wander to or from non-urgent medical appointments. Others are 'on holiday', which in some cases doesn't involve a single night away from home, but we retain the anachronistic law that allows parents to take their children out of school for two weeks each year. Thousands of parents frequently allow time off school for unsuitable reasons. Among those I have encountered personally are these: the child's birthday, a family shopping expedition, younger children need looking after, visiting relations, market day, family theatre outing (matinees are cheaper), staying in to keep a 'nervous' parent company. And that's just a selection. Although no school approves of this sort of casual absence, if it is covered by a 'note', it is omitted from the league table.

Mr Patten's support for 'truancy watch groups' is sensible. And the good news is that such a scheme has already, apparently, halved juvenile crime in parts of Stoke-on-Trent. But there is a serious, unacknowledged problem upon which local initiatives could founder unless the rules about school attendance are fully redrafted.

At present, police, welfare officers, teachers, shopkeepers and other members of the community find it difficult to sort out who should be in school and who shouldn't. However vigilant the police and others try to be, current regulations are just too much of a muddle. There should, I suggest, be only four possible reasons why a child is allowed to be absent from school.

First, if a pupil is ill, he or she needs to stay at home, with adult supervision. A medical certificate should be firmly required after one week, just as it is for adult employees. School is, effectively, the pupil's workplace and should be treated seriously as such by all concerned.

Second, there has to be a concession for emergency medical appointments. A child with a cut in need of stitching or suffering the pain of an abcessed tooth must have immediate attention. But there is no justification whatsoever for the constant stream of children to dentists, doctors, hospitals and orthodontists for routine examination and treatment at the expense of their education. If my hairdresser can stay open until 10pm three evenings a week and, as a teacher, I am required to see parents about pupil progress until quite late on certain evenings, there is no reason why clinics and surgeries cannot operate extensively out of school hours. Their staff could easily take time off in lieu during the day. As things are, the medical 'establishment' is giving children a clear message that schooling is expendable.

Third, children must always be allowed to attend funerals of relations and close friends.

Fourth, headteachers and school governors should have discretion to grant leave for other unforeseen reasons. They know the families they are dealing with and there might be, say, a sick relation in another part of the country to be visited or a siblings's graduation ceremony to attend. This discretionary permission should, however, be rare.

The main requirement is to change attitudes, not just in schools or within families but right through society. A start has been made, but we need an even more rigorous approach to school attendance if we are to eliminate truancy. And we must. We can afford neither the truancy-linked lowering of educational standards nor the presence of a growing young criminal underclass on the streets.

Matthew Symonds is unwell.