Tuesday 26 February 2008

The truth about truancy

The truancy statistics issued by the education department have long been a source of frustration for ministers. For a start, the figures have lacked sufficient precision to tackle the problem. Then the definitions were not terribly helpful: for a long time, unauthorised absence was, improbably, higher among primary school pupils, a figure gleefully interpreted as signalling wilful truancy among ten year-olds rather than too many mums not telling the school when they took their nine year-old to the dentist. Added to that, the only progress that seemed to occur was when 'absence' - including weeklong holidays taken with permission - was included in the figures. So, today's statistics from the DCSF represent a real improvement.

For the first time, we know the reasons for absence. Half are off because they are ill. Many others are on family holidays (in most cases, approved by the school). And primary pupils are three times as likely to be on an unapproved family holiday than their secondary counterparts. But behind the 1% of unauthorised absence there is a hard core of persistent absentees, inevitably given a new acronym that will not be welcome to many super-secretaries - a shocking 11% of all pupils in Year 11 are 'PAs'. These are pupils who should be preparing for GCSEs. They are the ones for whom post-16 compulsion will be especially challenging.

And we now know what works thanks to one piece of remarkably good news: there are clear signs that a programme of targeted intervention first ordered by Tony Blair two years ago to tackle persistent truancy in the 400 schools with the worst problem is having a real effect, with cuts of 20% in persistent absenteeism in those schools over the course of last year. (Academies have seen significant cuts too) This is where most efforts should be targeted, both on tackling existing PAs - if we must call them that - and preventing new persistent absenteeism. Unfortunately, the DCSF departmental press release seems to have obscured this genuine piece of good news in a misbegotten bid to ward off hostile media attention by highlighting changes in the extent of absence overall.

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