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Saturday, 14 December, 2002, 01:03 GMT
Truancy? What's that?
"Good morning, we're from Truancy Watch."
That was the opening line as the police and education welfare officers approached children and their parents out during the school day in a west London shopping centre this week.
They were usually met with bafflement.
It's a curious truth that, in the middle of a multi-million pound anti-truancy drive, most of the people this campaign is aimed at simply don't know what those in authority are talking about.
To my surprise as I observed the "truancy sweep" it became apparent that none of the children, and not even all of the adults, knew the meaning of the word "truancy". For once I do mean that quite literally.
School students just do not seem to use the words "truancy" or "truant".
Only when the police explained they were talking about "bunking off" did the kids know what they meant.
I was so surprised by this I wondered if it was a west London phenomenon.
I checked with my two teenage daughters; neither knew what "truancy" meant but instantly (a bit too instantly!) recognised "bunking off".
Maybe it shows I'm not plugged into the language of school students but, more importantly, it also suggests that government ministers, and those who devise these campaigns, need to get out a bit more too.
The uncomfortable truth is that there has been no improvement over the past six or seven years in the rate of recorded truancy - or "unauthorised absences", to use the official phrase which distinguishes truancy from absences authorised by head teachers.
In 1995/6, 0.7% of half-days were missed. In 2001/2 it was still 0.7%. That may not sound a high percentage but, put another way, it means on any school day some 50,000 pupils are "bunking off".
Yet this is despite tough talk, and tough action, from successive governments.
It is despite a government target to reduce truancy by one-third between 1998 and 2002.
It is also despite existing powers to fine parents heavily and despite the high-profile case of Patricia Amos, who was sentenced to 60 days in jail for allowing the persistent non-attendance of her daughters.
So what of the latest idea: slapping "truancy tickets" on parents who repeatedly condone truancy?
Is it a useful weapon not only for the police but also, as proposed, for head teachers? Or is it a gimmick?
To be fair to ministers, they are only suggesting it as a power that should be available to head teachers; they are not forcing them to use it.
Heads are wary
The police and education welfare officers I spoke to thought it might be a useful instrument, above all because it was so much more instant than the slow, bureaucratic process of going through the courts.
Head teachers, though, are much more wary. Their fear must be that it would make them about as popular as traffic wardens who slap penalty notices on illegally parked cars.
It may be a necessary role, but many think it conflicts with the usual role of head teachers.
Part of the thinking behind this move is to restore authority to the head teacher as well as giving parents a "sharp reminder" of their responsibilities.
Perhaps the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, has hopes of going back to the days when the local head teacher was a figure of authority not only in his or her school but in the community too. But those were more deferential days.
Many heads may applaud the idea of getting tough with parents who refuse to accept their responsibilities.
But how many will be keen on the idea of sending home a fixed penalty notice by "pupil post" or handing one over to a burly dad or fierce mother at the school gates?
Huck Finn's schooldays
There is one argument which says that truancy has, and will, always be a fact of life.
Children have stayed away ever since the start of compulsory education in the 19th Century. In the early 1900s only 72% of registered children attended regularly.
Sometimes, as with Huckleberry Finn, we almost want to applaud the spirit and sense of adventure and freedom it represents.
But on a damp, grey Thursday morning in a Hammersmith shopping centre, truancy doesn't look quite so glamorous or exciting as going fishing in the Mississippi.
Reality also shows there are many reasons why kids bunk off. One boy stopped by the police was in a terrible state.
He was a slight teenager and was absolutely terrified by a bully at school. He was too frightened to attend and too scared to tell anyone.
Others looked pretty cold and miserable. There wasn't much joy in truancy for them.
For some of these children, usually out on their own, the question should be not so much how can we punish their parents but "why do they think school is not for them?"
But there are also those, often quite young and accompanied by their parents, who are out of school because it suits their mother or father to take them shopping or to acquiesce in a day off.
The police told me some of the excuses they had been given this week.
They included: "He wanted to do his Christmas shopping", "She needed a new pair of shoes and the shops are too busy at the weekend" and "She has a heart condition but, no, she hasn't been to the doctor".
There are, in short, many reasons for truancy and therefore there also needs to be many remedies.
Prison is always going to be an exceptionally rare event as courts will, rightly, take into account the effect on the children. Fines may hit the child in a poor home harder than the parents.
Maybe there are times when brandishing the big stick will work, perhaps particularly when the children are still young.
But as they become teenagers there will, equally, be times when parenting classes, advice, and counselling are more effective.
And - in the longer run - we have to ask how do we make school into something that more teenagers see a purpose in.
Probably only when we have an answer to that will the stubborn truancy statistics start to fall.
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