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Tough on truancy

    No chance unless dysfunctional monitoring systems, as well as dysfunctional families, are faced down.

    What chance is there that David Cameron’s and Michael Gove’s threat to remove child benefit from errant parents will crack this age old problem? Will this sanction and stepping up of punitive activity be any more effective than its predecessors? These were the questions that sprang to mind when Woman's hour invited me to debate this latest ‘tough on truancy’ initiative last Friday.

    The trouble is that, like cargo cultists, politicians continue to make the wrong connections. The more parental punishment fails, the more convinced they are that this must be the ‘spiritual agent’ that will catalyse children’s ‘presence’ at school - that all that is required is a stronger dose or more effective administration of the same medicine.

    With Labour’s spending on ‘sanctions’ strategies passing a billion by the time the Coalition got in, it was pretty clear they had not paid off. Truancy remains as stubbornly resistant as ever. Despite the tens of thousands of parents prosecuted each year (up ten-fold from 1000 in 2001), despite some 16,500 penalty notices served annually, thousands of fines and several parents ending up in prison, despite a historic investment in educational welfare, truancy still managed to go up between 1996 and 2007 by another third. It has been stuck above the 200,000 mark ever since.

    It is hard to see how this exponential rise can be reasonably attributed to parents, whether powerless, colluding or recalcitrant, to their ‘facing out’ of punishment or to ‘weak policing’ alone. So how hitting parents harder by docking their child benefit can prove the better medicine, as Mr Gove has suggested, is unclear.

    Putting aside issues of morality or feasibility (the number of departments necessarily involved in its implementation and administration include Education, HMRC, DCLG, Local Authority Social Services and Ken Clarke’s broken penal system) – questions remain as to the diagnosis of the problem.

    The fact is that ineffective punitive activity can be tracked back to Victorian times. As Nicola Sheldon points out in her paper (Tackling Truancy: why have the millions invested not paid off, Institute of Historical Research) this currently febrile phase of activity began back in the 1970s when the relationship between attendance and attainment was first observed - when attendance stopped being an end goal and started being a means to another end – to that of ‘attainment’ as measured by new targets for school performance.

    The ‘problem’ has never been one of non-coping or errant parents alone (although the state’s encouragement of non-viable lone parent families has hardly helped). It is also one of the centrist state system too. It’s the outcome of:

    • A systemic weakness in the monitoring, tracking and pursuit of non attendance: which rests responsibility for tracking truants and returning them to school centrally with the local authority; which leaves schools ‘accountable’ but neither responsible for, nor in control of, attendance policy or strategy.
    • Inadequate monitoring and control practices in schools that allows some 17% (overall) of truants to bunk off after arriving at school.
    • Perverse national ‘absenteeism’ reduction targets - which translate into disincentives to track or bring back persistently truanting (often disruptive) children into school, into re designating unauthorised absences as authorised ones, to give but two examples.
    • Convoluted OFSTED procedures and guidance for the evaluation of the processes of measurement involved in meeting absentee targets.

    Without addressing these processes, frankly, there’s not much chance of arriving at that desirable early intervention – that wake-up call at primary stage – that Amber Rudd argued so compellingly for in the interests of child welfare.

    As a National Audit Office Report (2005) pointed out, schools wishing to improve attendance must change their own culture towards it first. And that’s unlikely if they are not made responsible for it. So any review set up by Mr Gove should include more than sanctions. It should include giving back to schools direct charge over education welfare and attendance and switching the resources from local authorities to do this. It already happens in Germany and Scandinavia where social ‘pedagogues’ work alongside and with the same status as teachers, taking full responsibility for children’s attendance and welfare. Some ‘smart’ schools in England are heading in this direction - by employing the educational welfare staff laid off by local authorities due to cuts.

    Talk is always of concentrating parents’ minds. But prior to 1919 it was the schools, more than parents, who lost out from non attendance. Their income was contingent on it - as I was reminded of on Saturday when re-shelving my late father’s 1920s classics and theology text books. A thin sheet of paper slipped from one of them to the floor. It was my grandmother’s 1884 Sheffield Central School report. She would have been 11. Performance in eight subjects – three academic and four strictly technical – were detailed. Along with a Very Good for English, Arithmetic and French, there, at the bottom of the sheet, but with equal importance, was a Very Good for Attendance.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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