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Expert Comment - Truancy: Lines in the sand

truancy_200_x_125 Wednesday 25 April 2012

David Cumberland, Director of Mission-Related Recruitment and External Liaison at Liverpool Hope, on proposed benefit cuts to parents of truant children.

As government ministers are urged to recover unpaid truancy fines from child-benefit payments, it is worth questioning whether such strategies work. One of the first difficulties is in defining what counts as truancy. A UK study in 1999 found that 7% of 15 and 16 year olds had skipped school in the last 30 days. A significant percentage of this is sanctioned by parents who in effect ‘authorise’ absence by contacting school with a ‘reason’ often cited as illness of some kind and as such therefore they rarely appear as truant. This is not a problem unique to the UK. In Finland, often heralded as having one of the best education systems in the world, a 2009 study found that (dependent upon age) 10%-17% of pupils had skipped school more than once in the past 30 days. Nor is the situation getting any better. Worryingly the age at which children begin a history of truancy is dropping considerably, with Primary schools in the UK regularly facing an issue which was extremely rare thirty years ago.

In order to improve school attendance rates we need to understand why young people intentionally absent themselves from education. Again, the situation is complex and where, for many, the reasons for truancy are multiple. Reasons given by pupils include bullying, boredom and uninteresting teaching.  Studies in both the US and UK have shown that self- esteem is of critical importance. The most persistent truants had statistically lower levels of academic confidence and self-esteem. Also of concern is the lack of relevance that truanting pupils see in the curriculum they are offered.

Who then is responsible? Is it the young person themselves, their parents, or the school they attend? The government’s policy is laying the blame firmly at the door of the parents, yet we know that truancy rates can vary enormously from school to school and region to region. Put simply, some schools are good at keeping pupils on track and in providing the appropriate variety of curriculum to  motivate all learners and some regions are still able to provide centralised and consistent qualified support through, for example, Education Welfare Officers.

If the causes are multiple, then the solutions must be equally sophisticated and refined. It is clear we need to intervene with supportive strategies at a younger age, focussing on those most likely to need the support. Such support and training need to be available to the family and parents as a whole. But we should also focus on the schools, ensuring we deliver a comprehensive and varied curriculum, taught in an interesting and engaging way and where bullying of ALL kinds is not tolerated and where pupils feel supported and nurtured. The ‘stick’ approach of fines and reductions to child-benefit are a blunt instrument, unlikely to be successful.

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