The government is losing the battle on truancy despite a
£885 million crackdown according to a report published by the
National Audit Office last week, writes Craig
Upon closer inspection, however, the picture appears a little
more complex, and there is some evidence to suggest that progress
is being made.
It is true there has been no improvement in the rate of
‘unauthorised’ absences from school over the past two
years, despite a government target to cut it by 10 per cent in that
However, on a different measure – the total rate of school
absences, both authorised and unauthorised – the picture
looks much healthier. Schools are almost halfway to achieving a
target of cutting the 2003 total absence rate by eight per cent by
More cynical observers would not be surprised to hear that the
Department for Education and Skills intends to use the total
absence rate as the yardstick in future.
However, the NAO report says that the total absence rate is a
more reliable measure because schools tend to use different
definitions of what counts as ‘authorised’, as opposed
to ‘unauthorised’ absence; i.e. it all comes down to
how you define truancy.
‘Schools are now more stringent in refusing to authorise
school time holidays and other activities that take children out of
a school day,’ says a spokesperson for the Education Welfare
Management Association (EWMA).
‘Consequently we could have expected to see a rise in the
unauthorised absence rate. It could be argued that the rate having
remained static, viewed along side the overall increase in
attendance, demonstrates an improvement rather than the negative
slant being suggested.’
Who plays truant?
The other key question about truants is who they are and why do
they miss school? Around two per cent of pupils account for almost
half of all truancy.
It is known that high absence rates are strongly linked with
high numbers of pupils having free school meals and with lower
attainment levels for example at GCSE level
But as Parliament’s public accounts committee has argued,
the former is only a partial measure of deprivation, while the
latter is likely to be an effect of truancy rather than a
Besides, there are a large number of schools whose attendance is
either much better or worse than merely looking at the numbers on
free school meals, or attainment levels, would suggest.
And some of the evidence is contrary to popular prejudice. For
instance, schools with higher proportions of black and Asian pupils
tend to have lower absence rates. Does this, as the NAO suggests,
mean that truancy is mainly a problem among poorer white
Jan Myles, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head
Teachers, says that more research is needed into which pupils make
up the two per cent ‘hardcore’ of truants.
‘What do you mean by persistent truants? It could be
pupils disillusioned by the curriculum, by bullying, those with a
‘We need to break it down into categories and approach
them according to need, so the Education Welfare Service can work
with parents and pupils, and either support or punish them
However, as the EWMA points out, very little of the £885
million spent on school attendance initiatives over the past six
years have gone on education welfare.
So how was the money spent, and how effective has it been? The
NAO looked at:
• National truancy sweeps – raised the profile of
school attendance, but few children identified returned to
• More prosecution of parents – thought to be a
deterrent, but its effect has been uncertain. A study of local
authorities found no link between their prosecution rate and school
• Behaviour improvement programmes – absence rates
declined in targeted schools twice as fast as the national
• Penalty notices (fines for unauthorised absence) –
too early to judge
• Attendance advisers – some local authorities
resistant as it was felt the advisers lacked local knowledge
While many head-teachers are pleased that some of these
headline-grabbing initiatives have had a deterrent effect, others
believe there has been too much emphasis on punitive measures.
Philippa Thompson, director of development from the charity
4Children says: ‘Fining and imprisoning parents might have a
place if parents are particularly recalcitrant, but for the most
part that’s not approaching the root causes of the problem,
which is kids’ disenchantment with school.
‘We would prefer to see an enrichment of the curriculum so
it captures those hearts and minds again,’ she said.
Some children contrast classroom lessons, perceived as
‘dull’, with more exciting extra-curricular activities,
and complain there is a ‘wall’ between them, she said.
‘But with the extended schools policy there are opportunities
to knock down those walls to focus on the needs of
The children perceived to present the biggest problem are those
whose own parents have negative attitudes to school, and research
suggests that they are more likely to truant.
The NAO report notes: ‘Changing the views of parents and
carers who do not see the value of their children attending school
regularly takes time and is unlikely to be achieved
It concludes: ‘A key lesson is that efforts must be
sustained over a long period in order to achieve substantial and
Despite mixed results from its initiatives, the DfES appears to
endorse this message, planning to spend another £560 million
on school attendance initiatives by 2005/6.