At the end of last week the government released the autumn figures for pupil absence in English schools. The figures show an ongoing drop in the number of children skipping school. But they also raise big questions about those pupils not counted in official statistics who are still missing out on a full education.
There had been an initial glitch with the data, with the first release withdrawn after only a few hours because an unnamed number of schools were not included. This was a mild embarrassment for education minister Liz Truss, who had already claimed the truancy figures as evidence that “by increasing fines and encouraging schools to address the problem earlier, huge progress is being made”.
That said, the correct statistics were almost as positive as the incomplete ones, putting paid to any suspicions that the dramatic fall in truancy was too good to be true.
The overall pupil absence rate is now at its lowest since autumn 2006, when termly absence data was first collected. While 5.2% of English school children were absent in autumn 2012, only 4.3% missed days in 2013.
Illness generally accounts for more than half of all school absences and it seems that last year children were just not as poorly as they were the year before. But parents also toed the line in greater numbers, as the percentage of children absent due to agreed family holidays also fell.
Perhaps most significantly, there was a fall in the number of young people on the way to becoming persistent truants –- from 6.4% of those absent in autumn 2012 to 4.7% in 2013. Given the association of truancy with lack of qualifications, unemployment and being locked up, this may be the beginning of a trend we can be cautiously optimistic about. We will have to wait for the annual figures to see if the good news about persistent truants holds for the whole year.
The autumn figures show that children in primary school are still much better attenders than those in secondary, and that some local authorities have fewer absences than others. Not surprisingly, the local authorities in large and medium-size cities where there is substantially more economic hardship have more pupils off school than those in well-off rural areas.
What the stats don’t show
While national and local attendance figures point to trends in the basic entitlement of all young people to an education, they are only part of the story.
These autumn figures don’t sit easily alongside the national survey of education welfare officers conducted by their union UNISON at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. UNISON warned that the shrinking pool of specialist staff in schools meant that less funds were being spent on early intervention and prevention.
They said local authorities were resorting to prosecuting and fining parents for children’s absences rather than attending to underlying problems. This might produce a short term gain in attendance, but more severe problems further down the line.
And there are other kinds of absences these figures don’t show. Those of us who visit schools regularly see students standing around in corridors, having been sent out of the room for poor behaviour.
There are frequently pupils in detention rooms, and others sitting in desks near the front office and deputy’s offices. There are young people who take the afternoon off once the after lunch-roll has been taken, or some who arrive at school late nearly every morning.
There are also persistent reports of young people who are unofficially excluded, or who are engaged in part-time, rather than full time, programmes. These kinds of “absent presents” don’t count as absences in attendance data, yet the end educational results for the pupils concerned may be as dismal as those for pupils who aren’t at school at all. There is more than one way to miss out on learning.
Underlying reasons for truancy
Most importantly, these figures don’t help us to understand why pupils persistently or casually truant in the first place. They tell us there is a problem, but not why it occurs or what we can do about it.
Ongoing attendance issues raise uncomfortable questions that aren’t amenable to a triumphal ministerial press release. Is it really the case that things outside school are always the problem for truants, or is it also that what’s on offer inside school is just not engaging enough?
Is non-attendance a sign of wilful misbehaviour or that there is a problem in learning that could be remedied? Perhaps the persistent and casual truant is a sign that all is not as it could be in the way that we organise and run our schools. While getting pupils back to school is certainly a start, it is not enough to ensure that all young people get the schooling they deserve. It is in how we answer these questions that we will find the answer to what to do with these pupils when they are there.