We don’t want no education

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
Study, 2002


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
    this year. 
  • 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.

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