Thursday, 25 March 2010

Is truancy really rising?

Today's 'record' figures for truancy show that the proportion of school sessionss missed through unauthorised absence has risen slightly to 1.05%. "Truancy" is on the rise, say the reports, and doubtless this will feature in pieces on "Labour's failure" tomorrow. Much is made of the comparisons with 1997 when 0.7% of sessions were missed. At the same time, the Government reports that days lost through 'authorised absence' are falling rapidly. The two figures are related. When the Government decided to clamp down on term-time holidays and visits to the dentist or on Christmas shopping trips, they created a rod for their own back.

Schools are reluctant to grant permission for such occasions that they might previously have granted, hence the rise in unauthorised absence. Unauthorised family holidays now account for 11% of all unauthorised absences. This has little to do with what might normally be regarded as 'truancy', pupils skipping school on a regular basis often without the knowledge of their parents. And a look at the detailed statistics suggests a more balanced picture.
  • First, since 1996/7, the proportion of sessions lost due to all absence has fallen in primary schools from 6.06% to 5.30% - in other words pupils are at school for an average of 1.4 days more than they were when Labour took office. In secondary schools, the improvement is even better, with a fall from 9.06% to 7.25%, suggesting pupils are at school an average of 3.4 days more than in 1997. However, within those figures there have been increases in unauthorised absence that have offset some of the improvements in authorised absence. (Table 2.1)
  • Second, the number of pupils defined as persisent absentees - missing over 32 days a year - has fallen from 272,950 in 2006/7 to 208,380 in 2008/9 as a direct result of a programme targeted at this group and the schools where the problem was greatest. This 24% reduction is a remarkable result for an intervention programme and is far more significant than the small rise in overall unauthorised absence. Indeed, persistent absentees are now responsible for 43.4% of unauthorised absence compared with 51.8% in 2006/07. (Table 1.2)
  • Third, there has been an 18% drop in persistence absence in academies (from 8.00% to 6.50%) over the last year and an 8.5% reduction in unauthorised absence, again suggesting that targeted intervention does work. (Table 6.1)
None of this is to suggest that there is not a real problem with truancy. Clearly far too many pupils are still absent for too long and more work needs to be done. But if the targeted schools and the academies have been able to make a difference where previous intervention programmes have failed, it would be rather more useful to learn their lessons and share them rather than assuming nothing can be done.

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