Any wonder they truant?

Children who fail to attend school regularly are more likely to
leave school with few or no qualifications and to be drawn into
crime and antisocial behaviour, and in adult life depict a range of
social pathologies. For example, truants from school are the most
likely group to become fully dependent on the state through housing
benefit and income support. One recent study estimates that every
truant will eventually cost the taxpayer £250,000 during his
or her adult life.(1)

But while the government is trying to reduce truancy and other
forms of non-attendance from school, the education social work
service, whose prime responsibility this is (within local education
authorities) does not believe these sanctions are working and is
feeling professionally demeaned.

The role of the education social work service varies between
authorities.(2) Until 15 or 20 years ago, the service dealt only
with the issue of attendance. Today, some teams deal with a range
of complex tasks including: managing exclusion, child protection,
antisocial behaviour, licensing and child employment, parenting
orders, criminal review board checks, alternative curriculum and
out-of-school placements, health and safety, risk assessments,
responsibility for travellers’ children and asylum seekers, as well
as truancy and other forms of non-attendance. As such, the
education social worker role is becoming crucial in implementing
the Children Act 2004.(3)

Yet the service is disadvantaged in several distinct ways. It is
proving difficult to ensure that action taken in magistrates’
courts supports the endeavours that schools, LEAs and education
social workers make when parents are brought to court for their
children’s non-attendance.

An analysis of a detailed questionnaire completed by 431 education
social workers in England and Wales suggests that most of them do
not believe that existing court sanctions work effectively. Only 4
per cent of education social workers consider that jailing parents
is a worthwhile remedy. Even fewer have any confidence in the use
of existing education supervision or attendance orders. They are
equally sceptical about the benefits of parenting orders,
antisocial behaviour orders or spot fines. Education social workers
consider the failure of courts to implement worthwhile penalties in
non-attendance cases is now causing teachers to lose confidence in
their professional ability.

Rather than punish the parents of persistent absentees through the
courts, most education social workers believe that disaffected
pupils must be provided with alternative or vocational curriculum
programmes. At present, the rigidity of the national curriculum,
the lack of alternatives and the pressure on out-of-school places
mean that education social workers are often trying to readjust or
reintegrate pupils back into a school system that they have already

Professional development and training for education social workers
vary. Staff are recruited from a variety of backgrounds. Some are
former police officers, others youth workers and teachers. Some are
much younger and embarking on a new career. Whereas 20 years ago,
education social work was a male-dominated profession, men now
predominate in the over-55s category only. More than 90 per cent of
under-35s are female.

All staff suffer from the lack of national training qualifications
available either at diploma or degree level. Therefore, most
existing staff in some LEAs are professionally

Staff workloads have increased significantly in recent years as
schools and LEAs try to meet government-imposed targets for both
authorised and unauthorised absence and reducing exclusion. In some
LEAs, education social workers have workloads ranging upwards of
10,000 pupils: put another way, having responsibility for two,
three or more secondary schools and their feeder primaries. Too few
LEA teams are sufficiently focused on primary school intervention
and other forms of preventive work. Consequently, too many
education social workers are engaged in fire-fighting exercises
with persistent non-attenders in years 10 and 11.

Staff are finding that an increasing number of home visits are
proving difficult. Too many parents not only condone their
children’s non-attendance, they encourage it. For example, the
number of holidays taken in term-time continues to increase.
Parents condoning their children’s absence accounts for up to 80
per cent of all absences within some LEAs.

Other significant reasons for pupils’ non-attendance include:

  • Boredom with the national curriculum.
  • Pupils’ low self-esteem and low expectations.
  • The local culture or history or socio-economic catchment area
    of the school.
  • The extent of bullying in some schools.
  • Poor teacher-pupil relationships.
  • Pupils feeling unsafe in school or on their way to school.
  • High rates of underachievement and illiteracy.

Education social workers tend to feel that the government ought to
do more to address the causes of pupils’ non-attendance otherwise
its consequences will continue to escalate.

The role of education social workers is to an extent becoming
confused, given the growth in the number of staff working in
schools. There are Connexions personal advisers, many secondary and
primary schools have their own school-based learning mentors,
home-school liaison officers, attendance support staff, classroom
assistants, social inclusion and special needs staff and, in a few
cases, police officers. All these support staff can be engaged in
either making home visits or trying to deal with issues about
non-attendance. Therefore, there is a lack of clarity about when to
refer a pupil’s non-attendance to the education social work

This latter problem is made worse by different local practices. In
some LEAs, education social workers are school-based. In others,
they are not. In some LEAs they are under the control, or
increasingly under the control, of head teachers. In others, they
are not.

Finally, one in five education social workers now consider that
resources available in LEAs to tackle truancy and absenteeism are
too scarce for them to be successful. Nearly half the education
social workers stated they had received none or very little formal
training for their roles. For example, most believed they had been
insufficiently trained to manage the implementation of the Children
Act 2004, Human Rights Act 1998, Freedom of Information Act 2000
and Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003.

Therefore, although the government is endeavouring to improve
school attendance rates and reduce truancy,(5) the evidence
suggests that the education social work service is being stretched
to its limits. A national review is needed, which would hopefully
propose minimum entry standards, good initial and professional
development training and the consistent application of the service
throughout every council. Until that point is reached, there will
continue to be pupils and parents who consider that they can miss
school with impunity.

KEN REID is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher
Education. His past three books have been Truancy and Schools,
Tackling Truancy in the Secondary School and Truancy: Short and
Long-Term Solutions, all published by Routledge Falmer. He advises
local education authority teams on the effective management of
truancy and school absenteeism.

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This article examines findings obtained from a
questionnaire completed by 431 education social workers in England
and Wales and places these findings into their daily professional
context. They suggest that the education social work service is not
only overstretched but operating differently from one authority to
another. A national review of the service is long overdue.

(1) D Boyle and E Goodall, The Financial Cost of
Truancy and Exclusions
, New Philanthropy Capital, 2005
(2) Swansea Institute of Higher Education, The Role of the
Education Social Work Service in LEAs
, SIHE, 2005
(3) K Reid, “The implications of Every Child Matters and
the Children Act for Schools”, Pastoral Care in Education,
23, 1, pp12-18, 2005
(4) K Reid, “The professional development needs of teachers with
responsibility for pupil attendance: a case study”, Journal of
In-service Education
, 31, 1, pp151-172, 2005
5 National Audit Office, Improving School Attendance in
, NAO, 2005

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