Whose fault is truancy?

government is desperate to be seen to be doing something about truancy. But it
hasn’t yet tried making school more attractive to children, writes Frances

government has had to defend itself several times in recent weeks over its
strategy for tackling truancy. Both the proposal to take child benefit from the
families of children who persistently skip school, and the recent jailing of
Patricia Amos, the mother of two girls who would not attend school, have led to
fierce questioning from within the Labour Party as well as the media and the
political opposition. So why does it bother?

Truancy is a trivial problem according to
official statistics. The most recently published figures – collected from
schools’ own returns – suggest that an average of 0.7 per cent of half days of
school were missed through truancy in 2000-1.

But as the Social Exclusion Unit reported
three years before those figures were published, unofficial evidence from school
students themselves tells a different story.1 A confidential
questionnaire survey covering 35,000 pupils in years 10 and 11 (14 to
16-year-olds) found that 30 per cent of respondents admitted to having truanted
at least once in the previous half term and nearly one in 10 truanted at least
once a week.

But the rate of truanting is not the only
aspect of this subject beset by confusion and conflicting information. There
are well established links between truanting and offending and according to an
unnamed study quoted in an online government magazine for parents, 78 per cent
of boys and 53 per cent of girls who skip school at least once a week have
committed offences. But when Tony Blair recently defended his proposal to dock
the child benefit of parents of truanting children he claimed that 80 per cent
of truants were found in the company of their parents. He might have been
quoting figures from Sandwell in the West Midlands where, according to the
local authority, 87 per cent of 2,200 young people of compulsory school age
stopped by the council’s truancy watch patrol were with a parent or carer at
the time. But unless large numbers of children are committing crimes either
with or witnessed by their own parents, it’s difficult to see how the two sets
of statistics can both be true.

So why are children skipping school in such
apparently large numbers, and who are they?

Recent research has provided some
illuminating answers. One group of young people known to miss a lot of school
are those caring for a sick, disabled or otherwise dependent relative. A Joseph
Rowntree Foundation study published last year found that half of young carers
had missed some school. Non-attendance was usually because of reluctance to
leave sick parents alone, but sometimes because parents did not want them to go
to school.2

Children are also missing school to go to
work. A recent survey for the TUC based on interviews with 2,500 11 to
16-year-olds suggested that as many as 100,000 children miss school in order to
do paid work – about one in 30.

Other children miss school because they hate
it. Sometimes because they are being bullied, sometimes because they have a bad
relationship with a teacher, sometimes because they are behind with work or
feel they can’t cope academically. A friend of my daughter misses school
regularly to see her boyfriend. Ironically her elder sisters are so determined
she should achieve more than they did that they do not allow her to meet him at
evenings or weekends, and school hours are the only time my daughter’s friend
is free from her sisters’ control.

Gary Craig and colleagues found in their
study of excluded young people in multi-cultural communities that most of the
sample had regularly played truant from school to avoid lessons, teachers or
bullying and some had been absent for months on end. The researchers identified
frequent links between disaffection from school and traumas and disruptions
happening at home. "The home lives of many in the sample were turbulent
and unstable, characterised by violence, disrupted and sometimes abusive family
relationships, illness and bereavement." Yet teachers and other
educational professionals didn’t seem to make any attempt to link home and
school problems.3

Of course, not all children who truant face
these problems, and to present the issue as one affecting only seriously
disadvantaged families may mean asking the wrong questions about how to tackle

At a time when consumerism is very
influential it is perhaps surprising that the government is not paying more attention
to user satisfaction with the services provided by schools.

Reva Klein is a parent and journalist who has
written a book about the causes of school disaffection and recently founded the
International Consortium for School Disaffection.4 She says: "The
government won’t ask itself why schools are being abandoned by so many young
people because to answer that question means making huge changes both to how
schools are run and to the curriculum."

Klein argues that there is a growing
disjuncture between children’s status outside school and within it. School
regimes in which students have few rights or choices, and are often treated
disrespectfully by adults, contrast sharply with their life and role outside of
school where they have much freedom of movement and expect to be able to
express their views and make choices. "It’s as if schools have got stuck
in a time warp."

But Klein believes the curriculum also needs
a radical overhaul if it is to make itself relevant to more young people.
"Kids need to be able to see the connections between school and life
outside school. One way to do that would be through more active learning –
getting kids out to do work of value to themselves, of value to their learning
and to the people they are helping. And then bringing those experiences back
into the curriculum."

To be fair, the government has published a
consultation document for young people about proposed changes to the curriculum
which would broaden choices and establish a framework to enable school students
to take part in voluntary and community work, or sports, drama or other
creative activities which could then count towards a "matriculation
diploma".5 But the Department for Education and Skills is
showing little recognition of the need to listen to young people’s views of how
schools should be run, and to take their views seriously, judging by its
documents on truancy.

So will the government’s strategy of
exhorting, threatening and punishing parents succeed in getting more children
to attend school? Education secretary Estelle Morris has leapt upon comments
made by imprisoned mother Patricia Amos that her experience had helped her see
the error of her ways as evidence that taking a tough line works, and she even
suggested that publicity surrounding the case had directly impacted on truancy

Anyone with experience of trying to change
the habits of a lifetime might have been more sceptical about whether the Amos
family’s problems were really going to be solved by a flush of good intentions.
For Klein the policy is "crackers". She says:"It seems the
government is not prepared to reconsider how we educate our kids. Punishing
parents is cheap and easy, but doesn’t get to the root of the problem. The
policy seems to be ‘tough on truancy; don’t mention the causes of

1 Truancy and School Exclusion, Social Exclusion Unit, 1998 www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/seu/publications/reports/html/school_exclu/trhome.htm

2 C Dearden, S Becker, Growing up Caring: Vulnerability and
Transition to Adulthood – Young Carers’ Experiences
, Youth Work Press for
the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2000

3 G Craig, B Coles, The Needs of Excluded Young People in
Multicultural Communities
, Joseph Rowntree Foundation Findings, 2002

4 R Klein, Defying Disaffection, Trentham Books, 2000

5 14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards, DfES, 2002

– Summary and questionnaire for young people
: www.dfes.gov.uk/14-19greenpaper/youngpeople/index.shtml

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