Still awol

An analysis of the latest truancy figures shows that the
government’s tough message is not being heard by those it is
intended for. Ming Zhang reports.

The national truancy tables published by the Department for
Education and Skills have told a similar story for the past few
years and this year’s national attendance outcomes are no
exception. In 2002-3, the truancy rate (unauthorised absences) at
secondary school was stuck at a stubborn 1.1 per cent.

In contrast there was a noticeable reduction in secondary
schools’ authorised absences, down by 0.4 per cent over the
previous year. So why do truancy rates remain persistently high
while authorised absences are falling? What do this year’s
outcomes tell us? To answer these two questions, we need to examine
what truancy really is.

Under the school registration regulations, if a pupil is absent
for a reason which has not been agreed by the school the absence is
regarded as unauthorised absence, commonly known as truancy. If the
pupil has what is regarded by the school as a justifiable reason
for being away, for example, a religious observance day, a family
holiday, an audition for a television job, or sitting a recognised
music examination, the absence is recorded as authorised.

The significance of distinguishing authorised and unauthorised
absences is important as parents can be prosecuted for their
children’s unauthorised absences. Also, it is the rates of
unauthorised absence that give us a clear picture of the scale of
the problem hindering the educational opportunities of children
from the most disadvantaged families and neighbourhoods. Previous
research has already established that there is a strong link
between truancy and disadvantaged backgrounds.1,2

But while truancy is an issue which mostly affects children and
young people from disadvantaged families, children who have
authorised absences seem to come from all kinds of social
background. They include those from relatively affluent families
who may take one of their two annual family holidays during term
time and children from poor families who are more likely to suffer
from poor health. A survey of Kingston school absentees in
1999-2003 found that 68 per cent of authorised absentees were by
pupils who in their schools’ view did not have attendance
problems. In contrast to the so-called “persistent truants”, most
of those who had authorised absences were not known to social
services or the education welfare officers. They are the pupils
“who just have odd days off” with good reasons, according to their

In contrast, pupils who have “unauthorised absences” are very
often the ones who are well-known to local agencies for committing
petty crimes or having other behaviour problems. By year 10 or 11,
most of this group will be known to social services, police or
youth offending teams. It was this group that was the focus of the
Social Exclusion White Paper in 1998 which laid the foundations for
the government’s target of reducing truancy by one-third
between 1999 and 2002 and a further 10 per cent by 2004, and this
is still the group the government is most concerned about.

In the past few years, there have been high-profile anti-truancy
publicity campaigns aiming to send out to communities and parents
that truancy will not be tolerated. Thousands of press releases
from local education authorities have been fed to the national and
local press about the fining and jailing of truants’ parents,
presented as shamefully irresponsible for failing to stop their
children truanting.

Middle class parents are not the intended target, but they also
feel the heat when headlines suggest there may be a new breed of
“irresponsible parents” who take their children out of schools for
family holidays. As a result, fewer are taking children on holiday
during term time or allowing budding child actors to audition for
parts which would involve missing too much school. As a matter of
fact, many children in this group are already good attenders, if
not the best ones.

And research has already told us that absence from school has a
far more negative effect on children from disadvantaged backgrounds
than on those from better off families. In their study, Douglas and
Ross related pupils’ composite scores on reading, vocabulary,
intelligence and arithmetic tests taken at the age of 11, to their
school attendance records over the four years.3 They
found the expected negative effect of absences on academic
attainment among children from relatively poorer families but the
academic performance of children from middle class groups was not
affected by absence from school. Douglas and Ross did not examine
why school absenteeism damaged the academic performance only of the
poorer children, but we might guess that middle class leisure and
family holidays include learning opportunities which are rarely
available in disadvantaged households. So while odd day absences
from school by materially privileged children have no noticeably
negative effect on their academic attainment, unauthorised absences
which are most prevalent among disadvantaged children have an
extremely negative effect on their academic performance, and
therefore on their chances in adult life. We should then be very
concerned at this year’s national absence outcomes which
indicate no reduction in truancy which is most prevalent among the
most disadvantaged children.

The implication of these absence outcomes is a widening gap
between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils in terms of academic
attainment. Recent OECD/Unesco international studies found the UK
had one of the biggest gaps in attainment between advantaged and
disadvantaged children, and these findings underline the importance
of helping persistent truants.4

It is encouraging to find that the government’s green
paper has accepted that truancy is still a persistent problem and
remains a challenge for both the government and everyone working
with children, young people and their families. Although the
proposed integration of children’s services should not be
seen as a panacea to the truancy problem, it would create the
opportunity to provide multi-dimensional support which, if well
organised, would be accessible to every child who misses out on

Integrated provision could, for example, include community-based
learning opportunities, which would break the link between
education and enforced school attendance. This could create a more
user-friendly model of learning that would motivate many
disadvantaged families and their disaffected children to access

The extended schools initiative and the notion of flexible
learning could address the fact that attending school does not
necessarily mean being educated for everyone. Most persistent
truants are so disaffected that they simply do not learn even if
they have been forced back to schools. Serving as a hub of
community and family learning, extended schools could motivate many
young people and their parents to learn in an unconventional but
flexible way. Distance learning and e-learning are already showing
huge potentials in providing an effective way of alternative

1 M Zhang, Truanting
, 0-19, September 2002

2 M Zhang, “Link between
child poverty and school absenteeism,” Pastoral Care in
, Blackwell Publications, 2003

3 JWB Douglas, JM Ross, “The
effects of absence on primary school performance,” British
Journal of Education Research
38, 28-40, 1965

4 OECD/Unesco Pisa Study, Literacy Skills
for the World of Tomorrow – Programmes for International Student
, Pisa, 2003

Ming Zhang is researching British
compulsory education at Cambridge university.

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