Truancy sweeps are an integral part of the government’s strategy
to tackle school absence, but a report last week by charity Action
on Rights for Children casts major doubts over their efficacy.
According to Arch, which surveyed 120 local authorities, sweeps
are a “blunt instrument that cannot cater for the complex range of
events in a child’s life” and “can only breed anxiety and
resentment among law-abiding young people”.
It says more than 16,000 hours of police time – equivalent to 10
full-time officers – are spent on sweeps each year, but nearly
two-thirds of children stopped are not playing truant.
Its criticisms follow a National Audit Office report in February
that found the £885m spent by the government on truancy
initiatives in the past six years had not cut unauthorised absences
Arch’s director, Terry Dowty, says truancy sweeps are not
required to identify persistent truants because the government
“already knows about them”.
“We are failing those children by not concentrating all our
resources on the problems that lead to their disengagement from
education,” she adds.
The report highlights inconsistencies between areas and gaps in
the knowledge of local authority staff. Some children were recorded
as truants when they had only recently moved into an area and did
not yet have a school place, while some staff were unaware of
government guidance stating exclusion from school was a valid
reason for absence.
And it raises concerns about society’s attitude towards
children. It says that some young people are absent because they
are being bullied, and questions whether an adult would be
criticised for leaving the workplace in similar circumstances. It
also points out that many young people care for disabled
Despite the criticisms, the Department for Education and Skills
is to press on with the sweeps. A spokesperson says: “Truancy
sweeps are a key element in the drive to tackle truancy in every
local authority, ensuring children are in school and not on the
streets, causing trouble or putting themselves at risk.”
Sweeps also retain the support of many in the education sector
as long as they are just one part of a multi-faceted strategy.
Ming Zhang, principal education welfare officer at
Kingston-upon-Thames Council in south west London, says their
effectiveness depends on what you want to achieve.
“If you just count how many young people are taken back to
school you could say it’s a failure because most of those we stop
will have good reasons,” he says. “But in terms of sending the
right message to the community, you have police and education
welfare officers demonstrating that attending school is important,
so I think it’s worthwhile.”
Zhang says many councils are moving away from the high-profile,
but less targeted, sweeps in shopping centres that have been common
across the country, to focus on children they know are absent from
“Before they go out they find out who is not in school and where
they are likely to be and go to those places,” he explains. “There
you find more young people not in school without good reasons.”
Zhang also takes issue with Arch’s claim that sweeps breed
resentment among young people. “Most parents and young people are
very supportive if you explain to them what you are doing,” he
But he acknowledges that some education welfare officers might
be too aggressive in their approach if they are inexperienced and
Sweeps also have the support of the National Union of Teachers.
A spokesperson says: “If parents are accosted when they are out
with their children, it can bring home to them that they are
breaking the law. Excuses like being out buying shoes don’t hold
Arch’s website claims that sweeps can be “humiliating and
degrading” for young people, but the NUT takes issue with this. The
spokesperson says: “It’s far more humiliating for children to end
up in trouble or in danger than it is to be spoken to by a police
officer or an education welfare officer.”
- One child is stopped for every 30 minutes of police time.
- One truant is found for every 82 minutes of police time.
- 63 per cent of children stopped are not truanting.