Thursday, 26 May 2011

Separating the truants from the cheap holiday seekers

The schools minister Nick Gibb greeted the latest truancy figures by blaming Labour for failing to get to grips with the problem. And it is true that despite giving schools and local authorities much tougher powers to tackle what is called 'unauthorised absence' the absentee numbers seem relentlessly to be on the rise.

But this is too simplistic a picture. One measure that had a remarkable effect was targeted action on schools with the highest levels of truancy, where such concentrated effort reduced the numbers of days lost to absence in the schools concerned, though it didn't dent the overall figures. This week's statistics (pdf) show that these measures, introduced by Tony Blair in 2006, saw the number of persistent truants (those missing 14 or more days a year) have fallen from 336,935 in 2006 to 260,740 in 2010 with the harder core (those missing 32 or more days a year) falling from 48,080 to 26,750. That is the single most impactful measure on truancy in decades.

But that success story has been obscured by an important change that was made during Labour's time in office to the focus of the data. Instead of simply focusing on unauthorised absence schools were urged to clamp down on term-time holidays, and to reduce overall absence figures, including authorised absence. The result was to drive many cheap term-time holidaymakers into the truants' corner. Indeed a look at the actual statistics (pdf) here confirms this, as the increase is unauthorised absence broadly mirrors the fall in authorised absence. A fifth of all unauthorised absence is due to family holidays. And there has been a fall in secondary school absence with a rise in primaries. I personally was against this change, because I believed the focus should be on persistent truants. But it has driven the data since.

However, the coalition does not appear to be continuing the work on tackling persistent truancy that had this big impact, as it is sceptical of such targeted work. Instead it imagines that the measures in its Education Bill combined with Ofsted inspections will do the trick. Among heads, only the permission for same day detentions is given a thumbs up - the rest is seen as window dressing (as, to be fair, were many similar Labour measures). But there is nothing here that will make the slightest difference either to the number of hard core truants or to the holiday plans of families in search of off peak bargains.

Next time, the coalition will have to start taking the blame if absentee data don't fall significantly. And when the time comes, we need to take a close look at the persistent absentee data. Those are the ones that are likely to become tomorrow's NEETS.

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