For a government dedicated to improving educational standards,
tackling social exclusion and reducing crime, cutting truancy –
with its links to all three – must seem the answer to many
Estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 children every day miss
school without good reason, and the consequences for their
educational achievements can be dire. Just 10 per cent of
persistent truants reach the government’s benchmark of five A-C
grade GCSE passes. This compares badly with children who have been
permanently excluded from school, 17 per cent of whom reach the
Experts agree that poor educational achievement is both a
consequence and a cause of social exclusion. Add to this a recent
survey by the Youth Justice Board,1 which found that
two-thirds of regular truants and excluded pupils admitted
committing crime. Official figures2 suggest that 40 per
cent of street crime, 20 per cent of criminal damage, 25 per cent
of burglaries and 30 per cent of car thefts are committed by
under-16s who should be in school.
These connections may give some clue as to why truancy has risen so
far up the political agenda, and there has been no shortage of
government initiatives (see below), some of which have been
controversial. Last spring’s suggestion that parents of truants
would lose child benefit was widely opposed and was dropped late
last year, but two mothers have already spent time in prison as a
result of the government’s hard line. One, Patricia Amos, gave then
education secretary Estelle Morris something to crow about when she
said that prison had made her see the error of her ways.
But there is widespread scepticism about the government’s stance on
truancy among education social workers and psychologists. Brian
Harrison-Jennings, general secretary of the Association of
Educational Psychologists, says a vital part of the jigsaw is being
ignored. “There’s a lot of fuss being made about home school
contracts, which tell children that they will go to school, and
they will listen to the teacher, and they will be nice to the
dinner ladies. Those contracts aren’t worth the paper they are
written on – enforced co-operation is a contradiction in
“The government isn’t addressing the underlying reasons children
don’t want to be in school. I don’t doubt there are a few parents
who are so desperately lonely and inadequate that they like having
their children around during the day. But it is generally the
children who are voting with their feet, and often for perfectly
rational reasons. Some are bullied physically or psychologically by
peers or by teachers. Others find school demoralising and
humiliating because they aren’t academic and are constantly tested
and found wanting.”
Harrison-Jennings suggests that a key part of the apparent rise in
the problem of truancy has been driven by the “performance culture”
in schools inspired by the Conservatives and sustained by Labour.
Constant testing and evaluation means that children who are not
academically gifted or who are lagging behind end up demoralised
and stigmatised. And with the importance now attached to league
tables, schools can ill afford to spend time re-engaging
disaffected pupils and, in many cases, would rather they weren’t
Truancy expert Ken Reid says “the use of the justice system to
tackle truancy hasn’t been very successful” and that the government
should revisit its performance culture and the national
“Children get into a cycle of academic failure, they fail at all
the stages, yet they still go forward to the next one. And when
they start truanting, we find them and send them back to exactly
the same regime. The truth is that the national curriculum is
geared towards academic achievement. But a lot of children are not
interested in modern languages, science or engineering. They need a
more general, vocational curriculum, particularly between 14 and
In a speech at the end of December, education secretary Charles
Clarke outlined the government’s measures to tackle the dual
malaise of bad behaviour and truancy. He said the government wanted
to “strike the right balance between supporting the ‘can’ts’ –
families in real difficulty – and putting pressure on the
‘won’ts'”. But while Clarke covered topics from parenting orders to
jail sentences, the question of why so many children don’t want to
be at school was notable by its absence.
1 Youth Justice Board, Youth
2 Social Exclusion Unit,
Truancy and School Exclusion, 1998,
Absent without leave
- Every day, 50,000 pupils miss school without permission and an
estimated 7.5 million school days are missed each year through
- 35 per cent of persistent truants now begin their truanting
“career” in primary school.
- Rates of truancy double as pupils reach years 10 and 11 when
they are studying for their GCSEs.
- Surveys suggest that “fear of school” and “boredom” are now
significant causes of truancy.
- A Department for Education and Skills truancy sweep involving
900 teams stopped 12,000 children last May.
- About half of the children stopped were with their parents – 83
per cent of primary school age children stopped were with their
parents and 26 per cent of secondary school age children. Of these
children, about half were judged to have no good reason for being
out of school.
- 60 per cent of children stopped were male, and 40 per cent
female. However this distribution varied considerably across the
country. For example 86 per cent of pupils stopped in Tower Hamlets
were male and 71 per cent stopped in Blackpool were female.
- Just over 18 per cent of children stopped were asked to return
with the education welfare officers either to their school or
another central location.
- Just over 1 per cent of children were stopped more than
Action plan for England
- Investing £50m (in the form of behaviour improvement
projects) in the 34 local education authorities with the highest
levels of street crime and truancy. Behaviour and education support
teams are being set up in almost all of these areas and extended to
more than 200 areas in three years’ time.
- Nine LEAs acting as pathfinders for fast-track truancy
prosecution. More will follow. Parents who have condoned or ignored
truancy will be given 12 weeks to achieve sustained improvement in
their child’s attendance. A court date will be set for the end of
that period, and there will be a hearing unless truancy improves.
Parents face fines of up to £2,500 or imprisonment.
- Truancy sweeps are taking place in all but the three smallest
- Parenting contracts: parents sign a contract agreeing to attend
parenting classes and to achieve a sustained improvement in their
child’s attendance within a specified period. If a parent refuses
to sign or breaks the contract, they will be prosecuted or, under
proposed new legislation as part of the forthcoming Antisocial
Behaviour Bill, receive a fixed penalty notice – the rates of which
have yet to be set but may be around £50. Police, head
teachers and educational welfare officers will all be given powers
to issue fixed penalty notices.
- Police officers are to patrol around schools worst affected by
truancy, antisocial behaviour and crime. Patrols are to be extended
- The government believes close relationships between educational
welfare officers and head teachers have been successful in tackling
truancy, and is consulting on the feasibility of basing educational
welfare officers in individual schools, employed by and reporting
to the head rather than to the local education authority.