Truanting truths?

Most people would associate truancy with errant teenagers. This
would make the education welfare officer’s job one of fighting a
battle to get 14, 15 and 16-year-olds back to school. But it is a
battle more than likely being lost before the children even reach
secondary school.

This is the most startling finding to emerge from an analysis of
child poverty levels and school absence rates in London. Truancy
rates in London local education authorities between 1997 and 2000
were studied, together with information collected through a postal
survey of 90 London education welfare practitioners and 98
face-to-face interviews with the parents.

The study found that school absenteeism is strongly associated with
child poverty, with pupils at primary school being much more likely
to be affected by an area’s economic and employment deprivation
than their counterparts at secondary schools. Potential school
absentees normally start the habit of non-attendance when they are
at primary school, with child poverty as a main associated factor.
The study suggests that, at this early stage, addressing family
welfare issues may stop truanting behaviour or at least prevent the
problem becoming entrenched.

Failure to act early in a child’s school career may mean that child
poverty is replaced by other influences. For example, peer
relationships, school work and youth offending become progressively
more important factors once potential absentees are at secondary
schools. At this late stage, it is often too late to achieve
sustainable improvement in school attendance by addressing family

In those London local education authorities with the highest child
poverty levels, the school absence rates were among the worst. The
areas with fewer child poverty problems enjoyed the best attendance
records. Richmond, Kingston, Sutton, Harrow and Bromley are the
five LEA areas with the lowest number of children living in poverty
while Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham, Islington and Haringey top
the capital’s child poverty list.

The findings will come as a surprise to the education welfare
practitioners who took part in the postal survey. They considered
that pupils at secondary schools were more likely to be affected by
family financial difficulties. Parents who were interviewed
explained that they were more likely to forget their younger
children’s schooling if they were troubled by financial

Secondary school pupils, by contrast, are exposed more than younger
children to non-familial factors that affect school attendance. One
example is peer group influence which may cause a group of
secondary school pupils to “bunk off” school together in order to
frequent town centres. This rarely takes place among younger
children at primary schools. Pupils at primary schools mostly rely
on their parents to get them to school and are normally with their
parents outside school hours.

The findings strongly suggest that education welfare practitioners
should begin work with absentee children while they are still in
primary school, even though truanting is often less severe at this
age than it is later on. Otherwise, once the habit of absenteeism
is formed, it is difficult to eradicate even if the family has come
out of poverty. Other factors intervene at secondary school age
that continue to affect a child’s attendance. At primary school,
the professional focus should be on children’s welfare as well as
their schooling. While the government’s children’s fund initiative
signals a move in the right direction, more needs to be done to
address the issue of child poverty in order to achieve a lasting
impact on school attendance.

More than 61 per cent of the parents interviewed had children with
attendance problems. It was clear that these parents believe that
parental attitudes and parenting skills are vital to good school
attendance. However, parents did not think that parental attitudes
and skills were always enough on their own to resolve their
children’s truanting behaviour. They considered that appropriate
professional help was equally important in achieving good school
attendance records. The education welfare practitioners who took
part in the study tended to believe that good parental skills and
attitudes were sufficient to make a difference on their own.

Nevertheless, neither the absentees’ parents nor the practitioners
consider parental prosecution as an effective measure to tackle
truancy problems with parents actually having slightly more faith
in parental prosecution than education welfare practitioners.

Another surprising finding was that the majority of parents did not
blame schools for their children’s absence. Parents did not
consider boring lessons as a significant reason for absence. This
finding disagrees with some earlier studies on absenteeism in which
pupils indicated that irrelevant school curricula and poor quality
of lesson delivery were the main reasons for absenteeism.

Ming Zhang is principal education welfare officer at the
London Borough of Kingston and a researcher at Magdalene College,

Figures behind the facts

The study found that the link between child poverty levels and
the absence rates at primary school was particularly strong, with a
correlation coefficient ranging from 0.700 to 0.855 (max = 1)
recorded in the three-year period between 1997 and 2000.

However, the link between child poverty and absence rates at
secondary schools is weaker, although still statistically
significant. For the same period, a correlation coefficient of
0.495 to 0.562 was recorded. Using other surrogate child poverty
indicators such as the government’s employment deprivation
indicators, income deprivation indicators, and free school meal
take-up rates all confirm the significance of the association
between child poverty and school absenteeism, and the difference
between secondary schools and primary schools.

The data indicated a trend over the three years of increasingly
strong relationships between child poverty and school absence rates
at primary schools in London. However, the association between
child poverty and absenteeism steadily decreased at secondary

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