Special report on truancy rates

    The government is losing the battle on truancy despite a
    £885 million crackdown according to a report published by the
    National Audit Office last week, writes Craig

    Upon closer inspection, however, the picture appears a little
    more complex, and there is some evidence to suggest that progress
    is being made.

    It is true there has been no improvement in the rate of
    ‘unauthorised’ absences from school over the past two
    years, despite a government target to cut it by 10 per cent in that


    However, on a different measure – the total rate of school
    absences, both authorised and unauthorised – the picture
    looks much healthier. Schools are almost halfway to achieving a
    target of cutting the 2003 total absence rate by eight per cent by

    More cynical observers would not be surprised to hear that the
    Department for Education and Skills intends to use the total
    absence rate as the yardstick in future.

    However, the NAO report says that the total absence rate is a
    more reliable measure because schools tend to use different
    definitions of what counts as ‘authorised’, as opposed
    to ‘unauthorised’ absence; i.e. it all comes down to
    how you define truancy.

    ‘Schools are now more stringent in refusing to authorise
    school time holidays and other activities that take children out of
    a school day,’ says a spokesperson for the Education Welfare
    Management Association (EWMA).

    ‘Consequently we could have expected to see a rise in the
    unauthorised absence rate.  It could be argued that the rate having
    remained static, viewed along side the overall increase in
    attendance, demonstrates an improvement rather than the negative
    slant being suggested.’

    Who plays truant?

    New Asset  

    The other key question about truants is who they are and why do
    they miss school? Around two per cent of pupils account for almost
    half of all truancy.

    It is known that high absence rates are strongly linked with
    high numbers of pupils having free school meals and with lower
    attainment levels for example at GCSE level

    But as Parliament’s public accounts committee has argued,
    the former is only a partial measure of deprivation, while the
    latter is likely to be an effect of truancy rather than a

    Besides, there are a large number of schools whose attendance is
    either much better or worse than merely looking at the numbers on
    free school meals, or attainment levels, would suggest.

    And some of the evidence is contrary to popular prejudice. For
    instance, schools with higher proportions of black and Asian pupils
    tend to have lower absence rates. Does this, as the NAO suggests,
    mean that truancy is mainly a problem among poorer white

    Persistent truants

    Jan Myles, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head
    Teachers, says that more research is needed into which pupils make
    up the two per cent ‘hardcore’ of truants.

    ‘What do you mean by persistent truants? It could be
    pupils disillusioned by the curriculum, by bullying, those with a
    school phobia.

    ‘We need to break it down into categories and approach
    them according to need, so the Education Welfare Service can work
    with parents and pupils, and either support or punish them

    However, as the EWMA points out, very little of the £885
    million spent on school attendance initiatives over the past six
    years have gone on education welfare.

    So how was the money spent, and how effective has it been? The
    NAO looked at:

    • National truancy sweeps – raised the profile of
    school attendance, but few children identified returned to

    • More prosecution of parents – thought to be a
    deterrent, but its effect has been uncertain. A study of local
    authorities found no link between their prosecution rate and school
    absence rate

    • Behaviour improvement programmes – absence rates
    declined in targeted schools twice as fast as the national

    • Penalty notices (fines for unauthorised absence) –
    too early to judge

    • Attendance advisers – some local authorities
    resistant as it was felt the advisers lacked local knowledge


    While many head-teachers are pleased that some of these
    headline-grabbing initiatives have had a deterrent effect, others
    believe there has been too much emphasis on punitive measures.

    Philippa Thompson, director of development from the charity
    4Children says: ‘Fining and imprisoning parents might have a
    place if parents are particularly recalcitrant, but for the most
    part that’s not approaching the root causes of the problem,
    which is kids’ disenchantment with school.

    ‘We would prefer to see an enrichment of the curriculum so
    it captures those hearts and minds again,’ she said.

    Some children contrast classroom lessons, perceived as
    ‘dull’, with more exciting extra-curricular activities,
    and complain there is a ‘wall’ between them, she said.
    ‘But with the extended schools policy there are opportunities
    to knock down those walls to focus on the needs of

    Negative attitudes

    The children perceived to present the biggest problem are those
    whose own parents have negative attitudes to school, and research
    suggests that they are more likely to truant.

    The NAO report notes: ‘Changing the views of parents and
    carers who do not see the value of their children attending school
    regularly takes time and is unlikely to be achieved

    It concludes: ‘A key lesson is that efforts must be
    sustained over a long period in order to achieve substantial and
    lasting effect.’

    Despite mixed results from its initiatives, the DfES appears to
    endorse this message, planning to spend another £560 million
    on school attendance initiatives by 2005/6.

    Report from




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