The failure to tackle truancy

OF ALL the disturbing trends in Britain’s schools, the one that seems the most resistant to change is truancy. In spite of endless initiatives and vast amounts of public money, truancy rates have stayed stubbornly static.

This story of failure is nowhere better illustrated than in Yorkshire where more than £30m has been spent over the past five years in an attempt to lift the region – weighed down by truancy hotspots such as Leeds and Hull – off the bottom of the school-attendance league tables, all to no avail.

The worry now is that, with funding for such initiatives being slashed along with so much other local-authority spending, an opportunity has been lost. With jobs being cut and budgets reduced, there will be even less ammunition available to fight this most intractable of problems.

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Surely, however, the lesson to be learned from the years of failure is that throwing money at reducing truancy will not work unless it is accompanied by an effective strategy. Instead of reaching instinctively for the chequebook, it is better if councils take some time to consider why their efforts so far have failed and to talk to the Government about ideas that might actually work. Certainly, the need for effective action has never been greater. Truancy is both a product and a precursor of what David Cameron calls the broken society. Absence from school, educational under-achievement and criminal activity are closely linked in a vicious circle which is being passed from generation to generation, with too many of today’s truants being the offspring of jobless parents who themselves regarded education as something to be avoided rather than prized.

The Government is now making noises about cutting off the welfare benefits of parents who do nothing to ensure that their children turn up at school. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Michael Gove has pointed out that fining such parents is of no use since, after being adjusted to take into account income levels, the fines end up being so small that they offer no deterrent whatsoever – a classic example of the type of initiative that has failed in spite of good intentions.

Clearly, then, there are no easy answers, but one thing is certain – unless this circle is broken, the Government’s much-vaunted education and welfare reforms will be deemed to have failed.