Truancy and ill-health among children at school by Ming Zhang

The campaign against truancy and taking term-time holidays may be attacking the wrong targets, writes Ming Zhang. For research shows that illness is still the biggest reason for school absences

Children going on family holidays during term time has been blamed as a major cause of absence from school, and there has been a significant effort to discourage this predominantly middle class behaviour.

However, my research suggests that we may be too obsessed with this issue and that it is misguided to treat family holidays in term-time as the most significant cause of a truancy problem that has persisted for many years.

Instead, the research found that illness – an indicator of poor childhood health, cramped housing conditions and unhealthy lifestyles – is increasingly the most significant cause of children’s absence from school.

The research monitors and analyses the attendance at 76 schools in England and Wales between 2002 and 2006. It found that school sessions missed because of sickness in the sample schools have risen steadily between 2002-3 and 2005-6. In the academic year 2004-5, illness absences represented 76 per cent of all the lessons that were missed by pupils at the sample schools. In other words, the number of absences due to illness is more than all other categories of absences put together.

Under the current system, pupils’ absences are categorised according to the reasons of nonattendance. Illness is only one of 22 categories, which include attending interviews, annual family holidays, exclusion and unauthorised absences (truancy).

While teachers and social care practitioners give various explanations for the continued rise in children’s sickness absences, the research findings point to the need for more investigations into the health and lifestyles of children and the healthy school agenda in the UK. This is because, historically, poor child health has been a major hindrance to achieving mass education in this country since compulsory schooling was introduced in the 1870s.

According to education historians, illness, while itself often the result of poverty and squalid living conditions, was probably a more important source of absence from school throughout the early stages of the compulsory education system in the UK than all other causes put together. An entry in the archive of the Edward Street girls’ and infants’ departments in Deptford, London from 1891, reads: “Attendance this week has been very, very low. Measles. Fever. Chickenpox and ringworm prevalent among the children. Over 40 children absent owing to one of the above diseases. Average this week only reaching
217.4. Percentage 62.3.”(1)

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that a significant improvement began to take place in public health. Symbolic of the changing approach was the concern raised in 1901 by the publication of Seebohm Rowntree’s social survey of York. This revealed that boys from the poorest homes in the city were, at 13, on average 11lb lighter and 3.5ins shorter than those from betteroff working-class homes. If the comparison had been made with middle-class boys, the contrast would have been still greater. It was to counter what Rowntree called the “serious physical deterioration amongst the poorest section of the community” that the post-1906 welfare proposals were introduced.(2)

However, despite improvements in childhood health after the second world war, the frequent illness of pupils from disadvantaged households was still a main barrier to accessing education. An important investigation into the link between
childhood health and academic achievement concluded that the poor housing conditions and insufficient maternity care among children from disadvantaged families played an important part in the differing incidence of lower respiratory infections between different social classes.(3) It concluded that poor housing and maternity care led to a higher incidence of illness among pupils from poor families. Despite the perception that we now live in a healthier nation, the rise in children’s absences due to illness should ring an alarm bell for the government and social care practitioners. The increasing use of punitive approaches, such as jailing parents or fining them, fails to serve the purpose of addressing the key issues that affect school attendance.

The current coercive approach may be intended to tackle unauthorised absences at secondary schools, but the government’s anti-truancy strategies in the past few years have failed to have an impact. Instead, the national focus has been diverted to the absences caused by children who come from better off or less disadvantaged backgrounds.

In its most recent report on school attendance, the National Audit Office recognised the government had shifted its focus away from the impossible task of reducing truancy: “Between 1998 and 2004, the department’s main focus has been to reduce the rate of unauthorised absence, but the causes have proved difficult to tackle and unauthorised absence has remained fairly steady. From 2004 to 2008, the department is targeting a reduction in total absence.”(4).

Although abandoning truancy targets marked a failure of the national attendance strategies, it may lead to something positive in terms of addressing the real causes of school absences if we can avoid targeting the wrong groups. The shift of focus may enable us to move away from the trap of truancy targets and the hype of family holiday in term time in order to develop a  multiagency approach in identifying and tackling the causes of poor attendance. The major causes of pupils’ absences – illness – cannot be addressed effectively by a school or any single agency on its own. Therefore, we need to pool the national and local resources to develop and implement the attendance strategies that address the real issues and have a lasting and positive effective on children’s access to education.

Survey of 76 schools found that pupils’ absence because of illness is rising.
● 2002-3: 4.05%
● 2003-4: 4.23%
● 2004-5: 5.37%
● 2005-6: 5.56%

The government’s strategies fail to dent truancy rate, which has risen since 2002.
● 2002-3: 1.1%
● 2003-4: 1.1%
● 2004-5: 1.3%

MING ZHANG is principal education welfare officer for Royal Borough of Kingston’s local education authority. He is also a part-time researcher at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. He is researching British compulsory education while writing regularly on truancy, compulsory education and multi-agency working in child welfare.

Training and Learning
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This article derives from research at Cambridge University into British compulsory education. The author argues that illness is the most significant cause for pupils’ absence from school. The attention we are paying to children’s term-time holidays is obsessive and misguided and national strategies to tackle truancy are not effective because they aim at the wrong targets.

(1) D Rubinstein, School Attendance in London, 1870-1904: A Social History, University of Hull, 1969
(2) P Horn, The Victorian and Edwardian School Child, Alan Sutton Publishing Inc, 1989
(3) JWB Douglas and JM Ross, “The effects of absence on primary school performance”, British Journal of Education Research, 38, p28-40, 1965
(4) National Audit Office, Improving School Attendance, The National Audit Office, 2005

Further Information
● M Zhang, “Time to change truancy laws? – compulsory education, its origin and modern dilemma”, Pastoral Care in Education, Blackwell Publication, June 2004

Additional Reading
Tackling social exclusion via sport: Kelly Holmes interviewed

This article appeared in the magazine on pages 36 & 37, under the title Sick of School


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