The Causes, Views and Traits of School Absenteeism and Truancy: An Analytical Review
By Reid, Ken
This article presents an up-to-date synthesis and review of recent research in the field of school absenteeism and truancy. Topics covered include: definitional issues: the OfStEd position; the LEA perspective; the causes of non-attendance and truancy; the role of parents; the link between truancy and crime; out-of-school provision; current trends; the implications of Every Child Matters and the Children Act 2004, and conclusions. The evidence reveals that, despite all the good practice which is taking place within schools and local education authorities, the number of pupils missing school continues to resist staunchly the best endeavours of the full range of caring professionals.
Key words Truancy, School absenteeism, Non-attendance, Parentally condoned absence, OfStEd, Every Child Matters.
The purpose of this article is to focus on a review of recent research into school absenteeism and truancy. The specific aim is to provide detailed information which should be particularly helpful for teachers and staff in schools to use, along with a range of caring professionals such as education welfare officers, learning mentors, home school liaison officers and educational researchers. Consequently, this review is limited to a consideration of: definitional issues; the causes of truancy and non-attendance; out- of-school provision; the Office for Standards in Education (OfStEd) position; the role of parents; the link between truancy and crime; current trends and the Children Act 2004.
One of the key issues when considering ‘school absenteeism’ and ‘truancy’ is to understand correctly the meaning and definition of the terms. This is not quite as simple as it sounds. There are various types of school absenteeism. They include specific lesson absence, post-registration absence, parentally condoned absence, psychological absence, school refusal and school phobia. This is where the ‘problem’ begins. For some, specific lesson absence, post- registration absence and parentally condoned absence are not truancy. For others they are, and are often retitled specific lesson truancy, post-registration truancy and parentally condoned truancy. For some, ‘absent without good reason’ can be equated with truancy. For others, having a reason for the absence – for example, being a parentally condoned absentee – means by definition that this form of behaviour is not truancy (Reid, 1999).
An Office for Standards in Education report (OfStEd, 2001) indicates that truancy should not be synonymous with unauthorised absence, as some authorised absences can result from the school’s refusal to authorise excessive absences for holidays taken during term time without the prior consent of the school. Due to these definitional problems, most authors using the term ‘truancy’ provide situation-specific definitions, as the generic terms often means different things to different people.
In a study of absence from school Malcolm et al. (2003) use three different terms to describe pupils’ non-attendance. For them, ‘truancy’ was defined as ‘absences which pupils themselves indicated would be unacceptable to teachers’. ‘Unacceptable absences’ were defined as ‘absences which were unacceptable to teachers and local education authorities (LEAs) but not recognised as such by pupils’. Finally, ‘parentally condoned absences’ were the results of parents or carers keeping pupils away from school.
Other researchers have taken different stances. Stoll (1990) defined truancy as being ‘absent from school for no legitimate reason’. Atkinson et al. (2000) introduce the concept of time into their definitions as they point to differences in the extent of the absence, from avoidance of a single lesson to those of several days, weeks or even, in rare cases, months. O’Keefe et al. (1993) reveal the difficulties in classifying post-registration truancy and specific lesson truancy, as these forms of absence are normally omitted from official school returns. Similarly, Kinder et al. (1996) remind us that ‘postregistration truants’ are not necessarily absent from school, as they may be specifically ‘hiding’ on the premises.
Some pupils miss school with the active encouragement or consent of the parent/s or carer/s. The Audit Commission (1999) estimated that at least 50,000 pupils of the official 400,000 who miss school daily in England are kept off by their parents without the permission of either schools or local education authorities. If detailed research was ever conducted into the phenomenon of parentally condoned absence, this estimate would probably be found to be an understatement. It is probably little comfort to recognise that similar definitional and numerical difficulties influence studies of truancy and school absenteeism in both Europe (Kitching and Morgan, 2001) and the United States (Gabb, 1995) and are one reason why everyone needs to be cautious when receiving and interpreting attendance data (Reid, 2002a). Another is the inherent difficulty which confronts teachers when trying to categorise the reason for their pupils’ non-attendance. Munn and Johnstone (1992) point to the particular difficulties which teachers in Scottish schools face when attempting to determine whether an absence is parentally condoned or otherwise. After all, how many pupils on their return to school are going to say, ‘My mother told me not to come’?
It is for these reasons that researchers like Malcolm et al. (2003) define clearly the meaning of terms used in their findings, whilst others prefer Operational’ definitions. Reid (1985), for example, in his study of ‘persistent school absentees’, defined them as pupils missing school for 65 per cent or more in the school year preceding the study.
School absenteeism and truancy are also often considered to be a peculiarly British problem. Whilst non-attendance and truancy rates are much higher in Britain than in the rest of Europe, a number of other European countries do have their own difficulties. An Education Social Fund Objective 3 project on disaffected youth in Europe (Nicaise et al., 1999) has reported on the variations of truancy in Europe. While Spain (Nicaise et al., 1999) is reported to have few problems, France has significant difficulties, with, for example, marked differences between the attendance of pupils in rural and urban areas (Kitching, 2001; Morgan, 2001). In the United States there is considerable debate about the causes of and reasons for differential rates of pupils’ attendance and truancy between schools and within and between the various states. Schools in California, for example, can be either high- or low-attendance schools. While some studies blame social pathologies for truancy, others blame practice within state schools (Gabb, 1995). There are debates about the definition, causes and solutions to non- attendance and truancy in Europe and the United States similar to those taking place in the United Kingdom.
This debate on definitional issues has increased since the introduction of targets for schools and LEAs. Improving regular attendance at school for all pupils is a key target of the government throughout the United Kingdom. Not only is regular attendance key to improving attainment (Malcolm et al., 1996), it is imperative in the drive to raise national education standards (DfEE, 1999), widen participation, access and improve social mobility. Truancy also impacts upon self-esteem (Reid, 1982), achievement, behaviour, employability and the subsequent quality and economic status of former truants in their adult life (Reid, 1999).
The causes of truancy and non-attendance
The causes of truancy and non-attendance have been extensively researched. Research indicates that findings can vary depending upon the methodology used. For example, data obtained from whether the methodology utilises school-based surveys, town centre surveys, pupils’ self-referral instruments, parentally obtained information or teacher-assessed questionnaires often reveal some significant differences in outcomes on such matters as the extent of parentally condoned absenteeism. For example, Tyerman (1968) found that home background and social circumstances were the prime reasons for truancy. Reid (1985), in a detailed study of 128 persistent absentees and two matching control groups (n = 384), reported that school-based factors such as bullying, the curriculum and poor teaching were the preponderant factors in a clear majority of cases. However, all individual cases contained aspects of social, psychological and institutional features to a greater or lesser extent. As such each case was unique and often interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary in nature. Tables 1-6 provide a framework under which the causes of truancy and non-attendance could be subdivided. These could be: the causes of truancy and its outcomes; home and social background; economic links, warning signs; pupils’ attitudes; and the views of parents.
Kinder et al. (1996) report on their findings with 160 pupils in year 7 and above. They found that the main causes of truancy and disruptive behaviour were (in rank order):
1 The influence of friends and peers.
2 Relations with teachers, often those lacking in respect for pupils.
3 The content and delivery of the curriculum.
4 Family aspects (parents’ attitudes, \domestic problems).
6 The classroom context, for example lack of control or pupils’ learning difficulties.
In a different study of professionals in schools and officers working in the education welfare service (EWS), Kinder et al. (1995) found that the prime causes were personal, family and community factors. Individual aspects included: lack of self-esteem, social skills and confidence; poor peer relations; lack of academic ability; special needs; lack of concentration and self-management skills. Family factors included: parentally condoned absence; not valuing education; domestic problems; inconsistent or inadequate parenting; economic deprivation. Community factors revolved around socio-economic factors, location, local attitudes and lack of community selfesteem. Within the school setting, the key issues were: poor management; the ease at which some pupils could slip away unnoticed, poor relations with teachers and peers and the perceived irrelevance of some aspects of the school curriculum.
Malcolm et al. (2003), in their detailed study of seven LEAs in England, examined the causes of non-attendance and truancy. Their key findings are presented in Table 1. Research (Whitney, 1994; Hallam, 1996; Reid, 1999; Atkinson et al., 2000; Ireson and Hallam, 2001) also indicates that truants and persistent absentees are most likely to come from disadvantaged home backgrounds and unfavourable social circumstances. A summary of these findings is presented in Table 2. Recent research, for example, has underlined the link between free school meals and pupils’ non-attendance (Zhang, 2003). Table 3 outlines the key economic descriptors likely to be involved in truancy and other forms of non-attendance. Table 3 indicates that truants and persistent absentees are also more likely to emanate from a further and wider range of social disadvantage.
Finally, social psychological and psychological research (Reid, 1999, p. 77) suggests that a higher proportion of truants and persistent absentees than the normal school-age population have lower academic self-concepts, lower general levels of self-esteem, greater patterns of alienation from school over certain issues, higher levels of neuroticism and higher levels of antisocial behaviour. Also, they are not liked much by other children; often appear miserable, unhappy, tearful or distressed; have poor concentration or short attention spans; often tell lies; are often disobedient, and may have stolen things on one or more occasions. Research also highlights the difficulties which children experience when their parents separate and divorce, including the potential impact upon school attendance (Butler, 2003 a, b).
Table 1 The causes of non-attendance and truancy
Table 2 The home and social background of truants and persistent absentees
Table 3 Economic links with truancy and non-attendance
Non-attendance and schooling
The overall national target in England was to reduce truancy by one-third between 1997 and 2002, something which the administration in England, Wales and Scotland failed to achieve. Since September 2002 all secondary schools were supposed to achieve a target of 92 per cent for overall attendance. For primary schools the target has remained constant at 95 per cent. Thus schools, LEAs and the DfES have begun to instigate numerous schemes to discourage truancy and promote regular school attendance. These include the introduction of: nationally co-ordinated truancy sweeps with follow-ups by individual LEAs; fast-track prosecution for parents of persistent truants, the location of police in certain schools, the provision of specific grants to LEAs to promote initiatives on attendance and behaviour, amendments of the national curriculum, including the extension of vocational education, and the promotion of schemes such as Sure Start, Excellence in Cities and the work of Education Action Zones.
Combating truancy is the focus, too, in many recent legislative and guidance documents such as Circular 3/99 and the Welsh Assembly government’s reports (Welsh Assembly Government, 2003 a, b). One such initiative resulted in the Antisocial Behaviour Act, which has introduced parenting contracts for truancy and misbehaviour, parenting orders for serious forms of misbehaviour and penalty notices for truancy. These measures are designed to reiterate the fact that responsibility for school attendance and behaviour lies with parents and carers. Of course, the failure to ensure that a child enrolled in school attends on a regular basis has been a long- standing criminal offence for parents. However, taking legal action against parents in cases of non-attendance has never proved very successful (Zhang, 2004), often because of the strong link between absenteeism from school and child poverty (perhaps measured by the acquisition of free school meals), socioeconomic status, location and neighbourhood factors (Reid, 1999; Zhang, 2003).
Research indicates that teachers and other professionals and semi- professionals (e.g. learning mentors) may notice a range of potential warning signs prior to pupils truanting or missing school for other reasons. A checklist is presented in Table 4. Research (Reid, 1999, p. 75) also indicates that a higher proportion of truants and persistent absentees than the normal school-age population tend to manifest certain traits towards their schools. These are shown in Table 5. There are wide variations in attendance rates between schools, even schools located in similar catchment areas and homogeneous places. Whilst social class and pupil intake factors may on occasion account for some of these differences, there are undoubtedly a range of within-school factors which are also highly significant. These include the quality of teaching, teacher- pupil relations and pastoral care; a school’s ethos, leadership and management style; the extent of bullying, out-of-school and after- school facilities and provision (Rutter et al., 1979; Hallam, 1996; Hallam and Roaf, 1997; Reid, 1999, 2002a; Atkinson et al., 2000). The attitudes of teachers, head teachers and other professionals (e.g. education welfare officers) to the management of attendance within schools is a new area of research which is beginning to be explored (Reid, 2004c, 2005e).
A recent study by Malcolm et al. (2002) of primary and secondary schools located in different LEAs in England found that head teachers varied in their willingness to authorise up to ten days’ absence for term-time holidays. In some cases this willingness was influenced by the time of year in relation to examinations. Schools accepted a range of evidence for the authorisation of absences. These varied from verbal messages from siblings to medical certificates. In some cases, school staff gave attendance high priority because of concerns about children’s safety. Nearly all teachers believed that the absence problem focused on a small number of pupils in each school. Many teachers said they would begin to worry if pupils were absent for blocks of time. Only a few teachers said they would begin to worry immediately. Boys in primary school years 5 and 6 were more likely to truant than girls. Girls in all- white secondary schools were more likely to truant than boys. White girls in mixedethnicity schools were more likely to truant than white boys in year 9, but less likely in years 7 and 8; 27 per cent of primary school children said they had truanted without the collusion of their parents. This creates a cycle of poor attendance which is hard to break. In 17 per cent of these cases the child was able to leave school without being detected. Many truants said the reason they wanted to miss school was boredom, and over half said they were not sorry afterwards. Most truants believed their parents would be angry to discover they had truanted. Sixteen per cent of secondary school pupils admitting to truanting from school. White girls in years 7, 8 and 9 in all-white secondary schools are more likely to truant than boys but less likely to truant than white boys in years 7 and 8 in schools with a mixed racial intake. Very few secondary pupils from ethnic minority groups admitted to truancy.
Table 4 Checklist of warning signs for staff in schools
Table 5 The attitude of truants and non-attendees to school
Secondary school pupils are more likely to attribute their absence from school to school-related factors than to home-related factors. These reasons included problems with lessons, problems with teachers, being bullied, peer pressure and social isolation. Most primary teachers believed absence from school is always parentally condoned. Only a small number of primary school staff believed that school factors contributed to primary school children’s absences. Schools promoted good attendance through reward schemes, improvements in school ethos and facilities, closer links between primary and secondary schools, and building good relations with parents. Nearly all schools used electronic registration systems to track pupils and analyse attendance figures. Some undertook truancy sweeps. Despite these systems determined pupils continued to skip classes, especially when being taught by supply teachers. Most schools reintegrated poor attenders by utilising education welfare officers (EWOs), pastoral systems and one-to-one discussions. Some used learning mentors, social inclusion units, adapted timetables, clubs, group work, befriending and collection schemes. Views of their efficacy varied.
Over recent years there has been a considerable growth in the amount and extent of out-of-school provision. This includes pupil referral units (PRUs), alternative curriculum centres, education at home and voluntary sector activity. Equally, the demand for child care has grown along with pre-school and after-school provision such as breakfast clubs. The provision of this outof-school care is often time-consumin\g and expensive (Malcolm et al., 2002).
Since 1997 the number of out-of-school units, especially PRUs, has been rising significantly. Prior to 1997 there was comparatively little systematic co-ordination of out-of-school provision and there were few inspections conducted by OfStEd. However, between 1997 and 2004 the number of PRUs in England rose from 309 to 452. A few LEAs still do not offer any formal out-of-school provision (OfStEd, 2004a). Moreover, some are still not fully complying with the requirement that out-of-school pupils should receive teaching equivalent to a full school week. In fact evidence shows that one in ten children stopped in truancy sweeps claims to have been expelled from school and not to have been relocated to appropriate out-of- school provision (OfStEd, 2004a).
Studies reveal significant differences between out-of-school units in terms of intake composition. For example, some out-of- school units contain more than four times as many boys as girls. In others, girls are in a majority. Some units are established for Key Stage 4 pupils only. Others include pupils from age 11 upwards (OfStEd, 2004a; Welsh Assembly Government, 2004a).
One of the biggest difficulties is finding alternative placements for pupils who are either disaffected or excluded from school (Audit Commission, 1999). While some LEAs are able to manage alternative placements within a few days others are taking between forty-five and seventy-five days to achieve this goal (Social Inclusion Report, 1998; OfStEd, 2004a). Moreover, in most LEAs there is generally a shortage of places to meet the demand (Wilson and Pirie, 2000).
Schools, LEAs, EWS teams and others in out-of-school provision or projects are involved in a whole host of local initiatives to raise and improve attendance (Pritchard and Williams, 2001). Despite this research, there remains comparatively little published material on the effect or outcome of out-of-school units on improving pupils’ attendance. As recent OfStEd (2004a) and Welsh Assembly Government (2004b) reports have acknowledged, it is many of these disaffected pupils who fail to gain alternative outof-school places, or fail to improve their attendance whilst in this form of provision, who subsequently become involved in crime-related activities or who exhibit antisocial behaviour (Social Inclusion Report, 1998). Some of these pupils are inclined to walk the streets because of the lack of alternative education or out-of-school units in their area. Moreover, many of these pupils are excluded from official statistics on school attendance (Reid, 2002a).
The Chief Inspector’s annual report for 2002-03 (OfStEd, 2004a, para. 294) found that for out-of-school provision:
1 Overall attendance in many of the units is below that in mainstream schools.
2 For a majority of pupils in PRUs, their attendance is better than it was before admission to the units.
3 Overall attendance figures in many units are reduced by a small number of persistent absentees.
4 Attendance is unsatisfactory in the majority of units.
5 Procedures for monitoring and improving attendance are either good or better in most PRUs.
With the development of all forms of mentoring, classroom assistants and other types of paraprofessional assistance, some out- of-school activities and schooling functions have started to blur (Street, 1999; Smith and Barker, 2000; Callender, 2000). Provision at the most basic of levels provides a safe place where children can be looked after by responsible adults (Fashola, 1998). At the other extreme is specialist provision which meets the needs of pupils with special needs, behavioural and/or emotional disorders and who repeatedly fail to attend school or truant. Research is beginning to monitor and evaluate these schemes (Keys et al., 1999; Hutchinson et al., 2001). So is OfStEd (2004d). However, much more research in this field is needed.
The OfStEd position
The Office for Standards in Education (OfStEd) inspects schools, LEAs and out-of-school providers on the quality of their State education. Each year the Chief Inspectors for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland report on their findings, which includes responsibility for school attendance. For example, in England, the Chief Inspector’s annual report for 2002-03 (OfStEd, 2004a) found:
1 The level of attendance for primary schools was about the same as the previous year at 94.2 per cent (para. 84).
2 Attendance in secondary schools had improved slightly, with total absences of 8.3 per cent, compared with 8.7 per cent in 2001- 02 (para, 116).
3 Unauthorised absence rates averaged fifteen days per pupil (para. 116).
4 Procedures for monitoring and improving attendance are better than they were in secondary schools but remain unsatisfactory in one school in twelve, often despite the best efforts of many schools. The Chief Inspector believes that a minority of parents, often with poor experience of education and low expectations of their children, do not do enough to ensure that their children attend school regularly or to support the school in taking action on truancy (para. 159).
On the role of LEAs, the Chief Inspector reported (p. 89) that they ‘are doing more to promoted good attendance’ although ‘support for behaviour has weakened’. Most LEAs inspected provide ‘at least satisfactory support to schools for improving attendance and in a third it is good’. Increasingly they have clear service standards and set out the range of support available for schools. Truancy sweeps and collaboration with the police are proving effective. The increasing use of data systems and analysis to inform strategies is also effective, as is the targeting of work with vulnerable groups of pupils transferring from primary to secondary schools. However, rates of attendance remain stubbornly low in many LEAs (p. 96). It will be interesting to see how schools and LEAs perform under OfStEd’s new inspection criteria (OfStEd, 2004b, c).
In Wales the Chief Inspector (Estyn, 2004) reported that whilst some improvements in rates of attendance and truancy had taken place, it was now the prime issue facing Welsh education. For example, as a result of its disproportionately higher rates of non- attendance than the rest of Wales, the City and County of Cardiff had instigated its own review of the issue (Cardiff, 2004; SIHE, 2005).
Similarly, in England, a number of LEAs have conducted their own internal and/or externally led review of attendance in schools and the education welfare service under their jurisdiction. Sheffield (2001), Sefton (2002) and Walsall (2003) are three prime examples, with the latter making one of the largest professional development investments in attendance ever undertaken (Reid, 2005a).
Some encouragement can be found from recent government initiatives to raise standards and combat non-attendance and truancy. Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones (OfStEd, 2003) reported a range of interesting findings:
1 Learning mentors are beginning to make a significant impact on the attendance, behaviour, self-esteem and progress of the pupils they support; they are highly valued by pupils and parents alike, and they help to provide flexible support for pupils when they need it (p. 46, para. 154).
2 Education Action Zones which had improved attendance among secondary pupils have also had success in raising attainment (p. 17, para. 56).
3 Trends in pupils’ behaviour and attendance were improving in Excellence in Cities programme schools more than the national average (p. 45, para. 153).
However, the same report (OfStEd, 2003) also found a number of negative features in the management of attendance in Excellence in Cities (EiC) and Education Action Zone schools. For example:
1 Low levels of attendance among secondary pupils were a cause of concern in zones inspected in 2001-02. The average attendance was well under 90 per cent. Attendance was declining or static in over half the zones inspected. Other attendance initiatives had proved ‘ineffective’. The second-round zones inspected have begun to raised standards and attendance (p. 17, para. 54).
2 Attendance remains a serious problem for schools in Education Action Zones, as it does for many schools nationwide (p. 63, para. 220).
3 The overall average figures for attendance mask some large fluctuations across zones and some of the schools within them (p. 63, para. 221).
4 While around a third of the secondary schools in the survey had improved their attendance, two-thirds had not. The vicious circle is clear: if pupils do not attend school they do not make progress; if the school does not help them to learn and achieve, they become disenchanted and do not attend. The same problem was evident in primary schools. In too many, not enough action was being taken to address poor attendance (p. 68, paras 242-4).
The report concluded by recommending that the DfES should provide more support for schools on how to tackle poor attendance (p. 71, para. 252).
Similarly, the Chief Inspector for England found (OfStEd, 2004a) that schools utilising the skills of learning mentors and who participated in the EiC initiative were improving their rates of overall attendance faster than the national average.
Reid (2005b, c) has conducted a full review of a sample of OfStEd reports undertaken on primary (n = 200) and secondary (n = 227) schools in 2003 along with a full cohort of inspection reports on LEAs (n = 32) and out-of-school provision (n = 71). These data reveal that whilst inspectors appear to allow out-of-school providers some leeway in their inspection reports, no such facilitation is given to primary and secondary schools. Primary and secondary schools are normally judged by comparing their attendance returns against national data and targets. Interestingly, a large number of LEAs have improved their grades for attendance between their first and second inspections. This may suggest that som\e OfStEd inspections are beginning to have a positive impact and, in a minority of cases, bite.
The role of parents
Kinder and Wilkin (1998) have reported on their findings from a National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER) project on where parents lay the blame for truancy. They found that parents believe children misbehave and play truant because they are bored and the National Curriculum is failing to address their needs. They also blame their own shortcomings as parents, as well as peer pressure and a breakdown in pupil-teacher relations. Also important were bullying, boredom at home, lack of school discipline and parental attitudes to schools.
Reid (2002a) suggests there is no single category of parent whose children miss school. His pioneering study puts forward some preliminary evidence which found that five different types of parents of truants and absentees exist. These were parents who depict the symptoms of being anti-education, laissez-faire, frustrated, desperate or adjusting. For example, frustrated parents are those who, despite their best endeavours, including appeals to schools, education welfare officers and/or other caring professionals, are unable to ensure their child attends school regularly. In some cases the pupils abscond even when the parent/s escort them daily to the school gates.
Table 6 The views of parents on regular attendance
Whereas there is clear research evidence that a disproportionate and higher number of pupils from ethnic minority groups are excluded from school when compared with their white peers (Social Inclusion Report, 1998), there is very little evidence on the relationship between ethnicity and non-attendance.
There is a clear need for a research study of the causes of truancy and nonattendance among pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds (Osler, 1997). There are some signs that some pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds miss school for entirely different reasons from their white peers. Might, for example, bullying be a more prohibiting factor among some ethnic minority pupils? Equally, there is a further need for more research into the value of teaching parenting skills among parents of disaffected pupils like truants and absentees.
Malcolm et al. (2003) conclude that in the main parents believed that school-related factors were the cause of pupils’ poor attendance. However, most parents still thought that their children’s education was valuable and believed that good attendance was important. Parents of poor attenders were less positive about school and more likely to keep their children off school (see Table 6). Recent research showing that more girls are manifesting disaffected behaviour and turning to criminal activities should be a source of concern (Ostler et al., 2002). Smith (2004) has revealed a substantial difference in levels of serious delinquency between boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 15. There was, however, little difference in delinquency between girls and boys if trivial as well as serious incidents were included.
On parenting, the main findings were that many aspects of parenting have an influence on behaviour-tracking and monitoring behaviour, persuading young people to be open about what they are doing and who they are spending time with, being consistent about rewarding only good behaviour, avoiding conflicts and arguments as far as possible, and avoiding harshness and punishment. The parenting practices of children aged 12-13 predict their level of delinquency at age 15.
The LEA perspective
Sefton (2002), Walsall (2003) and Cardiff (2005) are three examples of LEAs which have conducted a detailed analysis of their attendance problems. Walsall, in particular, has been able to turn round its previous difficulties through a policy of reorganisation, prioritising attendance and engaging a significant amount of professional development training (Reid, 2005a).
Evidence obtained from a study of attendance issues at seven LEAs in England (Malcolm et al., 2003) found that all LEA representatives thought attendance was important but the scale of the problem varied in each authority. LEA representatives thought their objective of getting children into school was defeated when schools authorised absence too readily. Although schools followed LEA and DfES guidance, it may be interpreted differently by different schools. Most LEA and school staff believed that there are links between attendance and attainment. This accords with previous published research.
They also reported that all LEAs and teachers believed that attendance was important because it was related to attainment, disruptive behaviour and children’s safety. Several LEAs thought that schools were over-ready to accept the reasons given for absence and also authorised too many absences because they were under pressure to reduce unauthorised absence. Most LEA representatives and teachers thought that truants had parents who placed a low value on education and were more likely to condone absence. Local education authorities supported schools and promoted work with parents, general awareness raising with the general public and multi- agency working to combat truancy.
Local education authorities engaged in Excellence in Cities in England are undertaking an in-depth examination of pupil absence between years 7 and 10 over a two-year period, partly to examine the influence of the project on pupils’ overall attendance rates (Morris and Rutt, 2004).
The link between truancy and crime
The link between truancy and crime has been established for almost 100 years (DfEE and Home Office, 2001). Despite this, there is no evidence that the importance of the link is diminishing (Social Inclusion Report, 1998) and considerable evidence that offending among 11-16 year olds appears to be increasing (Youth Justice Board, 1999). Not only are those who truant more likely to offend than those who do not but they are also more likely to commit repeated offences. In one study by the Youth Justice Board 65 per cent of truants had committed criminal offences, compared with only 30 per cent of those who had not (Youth Justice, 2002). One survey reported that only seven out of ten schoolchildren can say with certainty that they have not committed an offence during the previous twelve months. Only one in six of those who admitted offending stated that their last offence had been detected by the police (NACRO, 2001).
The government in England has established a cross-Whitehall group which includes senior representatives from the DfES, Home Office, Department of Health, Youth Justice Board, Social Exclusion Unit and the Police Federation which meets regularly to discuss issues affecting the truancy and crime agenda. Below this are a series of regional committees. A series of national and regional conferences have been held. Schools and LEAs were asked to review the application of their use of police protocol procedures. The police, LEAs and schools now work closely together on:
1 Truancy sweeps.
2 Challenging young people’s attitudes to criminal behaviour.
3 Developing youth participation in community projects.
4 Schemes to alert police to the proximity of truants in shopping centres or supermarkets. Schemes such as ‘Shop a truant’ have proved very effective in Liverpool.
Together, police and schools are beginning to work more closely on: their protocols with other caring agencies; information sharing; the vexed issue of confidentiality, human rights and the Freedom of Information Act; pupils’ rights; and the use or otherwise of restorative justice in schools. Schools are encouraged to appoint a dedicated teacher as a liaison officer with local police. Local groups are beginning to meet to give advice in such key areas as child guidance and community support as well as, at a practical level, to help bus companies manage difficult situations. In some local authorities, police and schools together are beginning to target high-risk disruptive truants and focusing their attention on ‘hot spot’ locations which are frequently used by truants and antisocial teenagers.
In the study undertaken by Smith (2004) at Edinburgh University:
1 Only one in five persistent truants at primary school was a girl, but this increased to three in five by the third year of secondary school – overtaking the boys.
2 By contrast, boys were much more likely to be excluded from school than girls – 74 per cent of those excluded in the third year of secondary school were boys.
3 Truants were more likely to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs than nontruanting pupils. At age 15 half of all truants reported using drugs during the last year. This increased to two-thirds among the long-term truants.
4 Factors such as weak parental supervision, dislike of school and lack of self-control help to explain both why young people use substances and why they skip school. After allowing for these other factors, there was still a direct link between using substances and truanting. For example, being out of school provides more opportunities for smoking, drinking and taking drugs.
Some pupils appear to be caught in a cycle of poor attendance, which affects their attainment and attitude to school and leads on to subsequent authorised absence (Malcolm et al., 1996). Worryingly, there is evidence that the age of the onset of truancy and non- attendance is becoming increasingly younger. Malcolm et al. (2003) found that 27 per cent of primary pupils compared with 16 per cent of secondary schools started missing school at some point – figures they believed to be an underestimate. Thus researchers are increasingly stressing that early intervention strategies are essential to combat truancy and other forms of non-attendance (Learmouth, 1995; easen et al., 1997).
Equally of concern is the finding that more pupils in years 7, 8 and 9 are beginning to miss school (OfStEd, 2004a), possibly because of the adverse ef\fects of the National Curriculum. Therefore, how the revised 14-19 curriculum and increasing provision for after- school, out-of-school, pre-school and alternative curriculum strategies will impact upon attendance will be of considerable interest to policy makers and teachers alike. Certainly, these initiatives should be only of benefit to some less able and disaffected pupils.
The sharp rise in unauthorised absences in England should be another cause of concern (DfES, 2004). As missing school and truancy are habitforming, there is unlikely to be a significant decrease in truancy behaviour in the foreseeable future (Malcolm et al., 2003) unless earlier intervention strategies start to become more successful than is the case at present, as most school-based and LEA initiatives tend to be secondary and adolescent-oriented.
It used to be considered that more boys than girls truanted. Conversely, more girls than boys were parentally condoned (Reid, 1985). This, too, may be changing. Malcolm et al. (2003) found that a higher percentage of girls than boys now truant, although there were some variations among pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds. Interestingly, however, absentees and truants do not form a homogeneous group (Malcolm et al., 1996; Easen et al., 1997). Although the work of individual schools can make a difference, there appears to be no single prescriptive way to reduce truancy (Hallam and Roaf, 1997).
Whilst there has been a proliferation of semi-professional and paraprofessional appointments within both schools and LEAs, the position of the education welfare service remains unresolved. The NFER (2002, 2003) evaluation of the pilot devolution project of education welfare services to schools reported encouragingly on this trend. However, different policies and practices between local schools and the education welfare service abound. Nationally, the education welfare service has been attempting to devise its minimal occupational standards and professional development needs (TAG, 2004). Thus, whilst OfStEd (2004a) is finding that the role of learning mentors and classroom assistants is helping to raised standards, promote social inclusion and improve attendance, the service with prime responsibility for managing pupils’ attendance continues to struggle. For example, the DfES (2001, p. 31) document Good Practice Guidelines for Learning Mentors reinforces the role of these staff in managing attendance as part of good practice at school level.
The evidence from research suggests that, whilst there are any number of useful strategies in place in schools and LEAs, no one has yet found the magic panacea to overcome all the difficulties in preventing non-attendance and truancy and enabling pupils to successfully reintegrate back into schools. Reid (2002a) found 120 different short-term solutions were in use in the schools and LEAs which he visited, with any amount of good practice available. He has also been engaged with selected schools and LEAs in implementing some successful long-term strategic solutions (Reid, 2003a, b, 3004b). Yet, some of these endeavours are local. Almost every LEA and school has its own individual schemes; some of which function better than others.
Atkinson et al. (2000) provide a useful classification of initiatives aimed at improving attendance. It includes:
1 Having appropriate service-level agreements.
2 Formulating preventative strategies, involving all pupils within a school or year group or all teachers within a school.
3 Having clear initial and first-day responses for absence, targeting particular pupils, days and lessons.
4 Implementing appropriate early intervention schemes.
5 Targeting pupils whose attendance falls below a certain level.
6 Identifying specific attendance problems in schools.
7 Having good strategies to deal with disaffected behaviour.
8 Fostering appropriate interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary links.
The prosecution of parents for their children’s truancy has never proved very satisfactory despite constant legislative changes, research and practice. Recent research has focused upon analysing the outcome of court cases from both professional and effectiveness positions (Kendall et al., 2003, 2004) as well as the consequences of the introduction of fast-track prosecution procedures (Halsey et al., 2004). The link between non-attendance, drugs, substance abuse, smoking, drinking and exclusion is another emergent field (McAra, 2004).
Looking to the future
The introduction of the Children Act 2004 is resulting in the biggest organisational change to face schools, especially primaries, for many a long year (Reid, 2005d). The basic idea is to ensure that schools and their facilities are available for 365 days’ use a year and throughout each extended day. Some schools will become the epicentre of local community, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary services for all children perceived to be at risk, whatever the reason. The Children Act, along with the Crime and Disorder Act and Antisocial Behaviour Act, are at the heart of New Labour’s strategy to improve services for vulnerable children and to protect local communities.
The focus of the Children Act is upon improving every level of professional support for children perceived to be vulnerable and in need. The legislation inculcates a whole new radical agenda and philosophy which, directly or indirectly, will involve every school, teacher, paraprofessional and educational support service as well as have implications for initial teacher training, induction and continuous professional development.
It will also involve changes in supporting parents and carers, and lead to much earlier intervention, more accountability and integration between services as well as enhancing workforce reform. In conjunction with the Antisocial Behaviour Act, it will help to provide a new impetus to tackling truancy and disruptive conduct. It is also likely to lead to a rethink about the wider role of schools and of pastoral care. The Children Act is therefore, at the heart of future government strategies aimed at combating disadvantage and disaffection.
The government has begun to attempt to build the foundations for improving children’s quality of life through Sure Start, raising school standards and attempting to eradicate child poverty. It recognised, however, that truancy and antisocial behaviour remain serious problems. Too many children are the victims of crime, bullying and poor parenting skills. Therefore, in the next phase, the government is intending to create Sure Start Children’s Centres in each of the 20 per cent of most deprived neighbourhoods. These will combine nursery education, family support, employment advice, child care and health services on one site. It will promote full service extended schools which are open beyond school hours to provide breakfast clubs and afterschool clubs and child care, and have health and social care support on site. It will create more opportunities for children out of school through the creation of a Young People’s Fund. There will be a large investment in child and adolescent mental health services, an attempt to improve speech and language therapy, tackle homelessness and effect significant reform of the youth justice system (DfES, 2003).
Following the Children Act and implementation of Every Child Matters, there is an urgent need for some research into how the reorganisation of LEAs and caring professionals will integrate, operate and facilitate pupils like truants, non-attenders and disrupters and how the new multidisciplinary teams will interface with parents and carers.
After more than 130 years of compulsory schooling and a century of research into school absenteeism and truancy we are little nearer finding definitive solutions. In fact, in some ways research continues to reveal how increasingly complex the field of study of truancy and school absenteeism has become. There is little sign of Britain losing its position as the country in Europe with the highest rates of non-attendance and unauthorised absence. Nonattendance and truancy continue to fester, promoted by such factors as social inequalities, poverty, the anti-educational attitudes and incompetence of some parents, low literacy and numeracy skills, poor and undemanding teaching, boredom among certain pupils, adverse peer pressure, unattractive school buildings and adverse school climates. There is, for example, a long way to go before schools in Britain have a constructive vocational curriculum for all 14-19 year olds which is valued by all parties in the educational enterprise – not least the pupils themselves. One part of the problem is that successive governments are constantly reacting to truancy though a whole range of initiatives, some of which are often ill conceived or too hastily introduced.
No one can really be sure of, or even estimate accurately, the precise longterm costs of non-attendance and truancy from school, especially for the consequences of their adult lifestyles (Malcolm et al., 2002). There is little doubt that disaffected pupils continue to cost the taxpayer considerable sums of money – not least in terms of professionals’ time and support, legal fees, social security, housing benefit, crime prevention, mental health budgets and prolonging the generational truancy syndrome which is affecting some parts of the United Kingdom. This point can be reiterated when the real costs of trying to prevent truancy and return pupils to school are taken into account along with all the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary support needed, which includes the cost of combating crime and youth offending (Boyle and Goodall, 2005a). The New Philanthropy Capital report (Boyle and Goodall, 2005b) calculates that over their lifetime each truant costs society at least 250,000.
Throughout the United Kingdom the overall improvement in attendance levels over the las\t ten years is only slight. Preventing and combating absence is expensive in terms of staff time. It is also costly for schools, LEAs and the nation. It is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinaryoriented. Also, the behaviour of truants in school can adversely affect the learning and behaviour of other pupils (Learmouth, 1995; Malcolm et al., 2003).
Despite all the good practice within schools and LEAs – and there is much better practice now than ever previously – the number of pupils missing school continues to staunchly resist all our best endeavours (NAO, 2005). There is still a lack of successful early intervention techniques being applied and the evidence is that more support needs to be given at the primary and initial stages before it is too late and pupils’ attitudes have hardened. Given that 36 per cent of pupils begin their history of truancy or non-attendance in the primary phase, and more girls are becoming disaffected and truanting, much more research into practically based solutions needs to be undertaken. It will be interesting to discover how recent government initiatives such as Every Child Matters and the Antisocial Behaviour Act will help to improve the position over a considerable period of time.
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Ken Reid Swansea Institute of Higher Education
Address for correspondence
Swansea Institute of Higher Education, Mount Pleasant Campus, Swansea SA1 6ED. E-mail email@example.com
Copyright Manchester University Press Nov 2005