It is fair to say that truancy rates have been something of a bugbear for new Labour ever since they swept into power in 1997. And two elections and numerous truancy initiatives later, the problem does not look like going away any time soon.
Despite £885m being spent on pupil behaviour and attendance strategies since 1997, provisional statistics for 2004/5 reveal that the percentage of half days missed through unauthorised absences rose from 0.7% in 1996/7 to 0.79% in 2004/5. This means that, last year, children in England missed out on an estimated 2,270,000 days of primary school education and 5,685,000 days of secondary school education as a result of unauthorised absences.
With these figures making uncomfortable reading, it is unsurprising that, in 2004, the government decided to dilute its focus on unauthorised absences and look at authorised – and therefore easier to tackle – absences as well.
This change in tack was two-fold: the replacement of a target to cut unauthorised absences by 10% between 2002 and 2004 with a new, altogether more achievable target of reducing all non-attendance from 2002 levels by 8% by 2008; and the beefing up of truancy initiatives aimed predominantly at sending a message home to parents that condoning children’s absence from school is wrong.
One such initiative was the penalty notice for truancy, another was the “fast track to prosecution” framework, and a third was the twice-yearly nationwide truancy sweeps (see Favourite Government tactics – below).As a result of these efforts and the new counting methods, the government was able to claim earlier this year that it had reduced overall absence rates from 7.23% of half days in 1996/7 to 6.45% in 2004/5 – a change equivalent to an extra 50,000 pupils regularly attending school every day.
However, behind this tale of progress is the harsh reality that a hard core of persistent truants continue to be unaffected by any truancy strategy or initiative to date and continue to live with their complex range of unresolved underlying reasons for truanting.
“We are in danger of masking the very serious problem of persistent truants,” warns Terri Dowty, director of children’s charity Action on Rights for Children (Arch). “We can improve the figures by cutting down what you are allowed to do in school hours. But switching focus to authorised absences and whole-school attendance is masking the problem of children not getting an education.”
Ming Zhang, principal education worker at Kingston Council in London, points out that, when you check where improvements have been achieved as a result of threats being made about parents being fined or taken to court, these have largely been in relation to children whose attendance is actually quite good in the first place. By contrast, these threats have had little or no impact on the behaviour of hard core absentees. “We are helping those children who are already benefiting from education quite well, but not those who aren’t,” Zhang says.
An evaluation of the fast track scheme published last September by the National Foundation for Education Research confirms that it is seen by those involved as more successful in the marginal and borderline non-attendance cases, but that it “is not seen to be as effective” in complex cases of entrenched non-attendance, which are often associated with other issues within the family situation.
Dowty cites the case of Patricia Amos as proof that prosecuting parents of persistent truants does not work. Amos was imprisoned in 2002 for allowing her daughters to truant only to be sent back to prison two year’s later for allowing one of them to truant again. “How does fining a family which is already disadvantaged help?” asks Dowty. “How is imprisoning them and taking their children into care the answer?”
She accuses truancy sweeps, meanwhile, of being a waste of resources that could be better spent on other initiatives or used to better resource local authorities’ education welfare departments. Evidence collated from 120 local education authorities (leas) and published by Arch in September reveals that, for every three children stopped, only one does not have a legitimate reason for not being in school.
But despite all these criticisms, the government seems determined to stay with its strategy. In September, schools minister Jacqui Smith announced that 146 secondary schools across England, who together account for one in five of all instances of truancy, must identify their 8,000 most persistent truants and put all their parents immediately on the fast track to attendance scheme.
“It is disappointing that a stubborn minority of pupils, estimated at 8,000 in just 4% of secondary schools, remain determined to jeopardise their education and their futures through persistent truancy,” Smith said.
While the renewed focus on this minority of young people and parents is undoubtedly welcome, campaigners are critical of the government’s hardline approach, particularly when dealing with such a complex group.
Many want a total rethink. National Youth Agency chief executive Tom Wylie insists it is time to go back to basics and find out exactly what it is about the curriculum and the school experience that makes some young people conclude that they would rather be elsewhere.
“We need proper education welfare support that gets to the bottom of why kids are truanting. Some don’t like maths, some are getting bullied – there’s No single problem,” he argues.
He insists that the only reason the problem has lasted so long is because the response so far has not been “multi-layered”. He believes, to achieve this, schools need to work with the whole community and recognise that other people might be able to reach young people in a way that teachers cannot.
Policy officer at The Education Network Frances Migniuolo points to the contribution many behaviour improvement partnerships have made to cutting truancy levels as proof that working with other agencies in the community works. “There’s the early preventive work that needs to go on. But there’s also tackling the long-standing problems with families who have multiple problems to deal with. And that is where the multi-agency approach seems to work well,” she explains.
Migniuolo is confident that the changes coming in under the Every Child Matters agenda and the Children Act 2004, including the duty on agencies to co-operate with one another and pool budgets plus the co-location of different services in children’s centres and extended schools, will make joint working on the causes and effects of truancy both more likely and more effective.
So, with the emergence of the framework and structures to allow progress, the onus now is on the government to reduce the pressure on leas and schools to use blunt tools and heavy-handed tactics. Only then might a whole range of local solutions which consider the wider picture and the underlying causes of truancy be allowed to flourish.
Favourite government tactics
Penalty notices for truancy were introduced in 2004 as quicker and cheaper alternatives to prosecution for parents who fail to ensure their child’s regular attendance at school. They can be issued by education welfare officers, head teachers or police officers. Recipients must pay £50 within 28 days or £100 within 42 days or face prosecution. Between September 2004 and September 2005, 2,700 penalty notices were issued in England.
The “fast track to prosecution” framework began in January 2003, and by June 2004 was being implemented by more than two thirds of leas. Parents placed on the scheme must improve their child’s school attendance over a 12-week period or face prosecution, normally resulting in a fine of up to £2,500 or three months’ imprisonment. Over 18,000 parents have been placed on the scheme since last September.
Since May 2002 the Department for Education and Skills has prescribed two national truancy sweep initiatives per year for England when leas conduct a series of sweeps over a three-week period.
Learning lessons from east new york
The criminal courts of East New York might seem a long way from the schools of East Yorkshire. But when Hull headmaster Derek Coe first heard about the Red Hook Justice centre in Brooklyn, he began to wonder whether its innovative approach to dealing with teenage crime could be adapted to help combat problems such as truancy.
Red Hook uses a “teen court” in which specially trained young people try cases and set punishments for 10- to 16-year-olds accused of petty crimes such as truancy, antisocial behaviour, vandalism, drug-taking and underage drinking.
Coe, who is headmaster of Sydney Smith School in Hull, felt a similar approach might provide his school with a less authoritarian and ultimately more successful approach to discipline.
“in many cases, our response to problems such as truancy and bullying can disengage that individual from the rest of the community,” he says. “when the punishment is seen as coming from an authority figure the young person doesn’t evaluate what they are doing at all.
“what really impressed me about red hook was that it was educating and training youngsters to be able to evaluate and analyse whatever the culprit had done and then come to a reasoned outcome. So i started thinking ‘how could we use this in a school system?’”
After several visits to Brooklyn, first on his own, then with a number of city councillors and finally with a group of year 11 pupils, Coe had his answer. Rather than using exclusion as the final resort in cases of persistent truancy or bullying, a youth court or tribunal would be set up in which punishments would be determined by the pupil’s peers.
Importantly, the system would not be set up within a single school, but adopted right across the city. In this way the youth court could be assured a balanced socio-economic mix and involve the whole community. In a city with one of the lowest school attendance rates in the country, and high rates of associated social problems such as youth crime, drug use and antisocial behaviour, any opportunity of keeping more of Hull’s children in school could not afford to be missed.
“it became clear that the ability to influence these young people who are at the periphery early by peer assessment would have an enormously beneficial effect on the whole city,” says Coe.
Training of the young people who will sit on the youth tribunals has already begun. Funding for the project so far has come from donations and from the five schools involved. However, Coe is hopeful that the local authority and the dfes will also begin to contribute once the system is up and running.
According to 15-year-olds Jodie Loft and Stuart Steels, both of whom went out to New York to visit the Red Hook centre, the kind of peer assessment envisaged by the tribunals will offer punishments that are both fairer and more effective than the current system.
“if you’re standing there in front of an adult you might think ‘they don’t know anything about me, they don’t know how my life works’,” explains Loft. “but if it’s someone the same age you’ll think ‘they are on the same level as me. They know what’s going on’.”
“there are things you wouldn’t want to tell an adult,” adds Steels. “so we may be able to look at the whole story a bit better. So if someone is having problems at home then maybe we will say they should get a bit more leeway.”
Additional reporting by Mark Hunter