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Tuesday, June 16, 1998 Published at 20:29 GMT 21:29 UK


Education

'Lost' truants lured back to school

Roughly one million children truant in the UK

Within the next two weeks the government will publish new proposals to deal with a 'lost generation' of boys in Britain. That is, boys who play truant regularly and who, often because of this, perform consistently less well than girls at secondary school.

It is believed that up to a million school children play truant in Britain; 30,000 have been excluded from school. In a special report for the BBC's Nine O'Clock News Sue Lloyd-Roberts has been investigating how some education authorities are tackling the problem.

At a shopping centre in Newcastle PC Steve Pollack, accompanied by an educational welfare officer, carries out a routine truancy sweep. Within half an hour, they have stopped and questioned 20 children.


[ image: Some childrens' parents are given pagers]
Some childrens' parents are given pagers
Some have a valid reason for not being at school and others say they have been excluded. All of them have their details taken. The link between truancy and crime is well known by police forces throughout the country.

PC Pollack said, "What I can tell you is that of the 546 truants we have stopped over the last two years, 180 of them were already known to the police, that's a third."

Crime is only one of the reasons why the Secretary of State has launched his anti-truancy campaign. Combating truancy has become part of the government's fight against social exclusion. A child who completes school has a fairer chance in life. The problem is persuading the teenager to stay the course.

Pagers for parents

Alan Macado, a 13-year-old who goes to Seaham Comprehensive in County Durham, said: " I would look at the timetable in the morning and, if I didn't like the teacher, I would go to the park and meet up with my friends and we'd play tiggy. Sometimes I'd go back to school, check the timetable, and, if I didn't like the teacher, go back to the park."

But all that was before the school equipped Alan's mother with a pager. Now, within minutes of being paged she has spoken to the school and is out looking for Alan. Alan has not played truant since.

The school's headteacher, Robert Dingle, is delighted with the scheme which is being pioneered in the UK by the Durham Education Authority. He said he has had an 80% success rate with those pupils deemed appropriate candidates for the pager treatment.

"We've identified those pupils who just don't want to go to school and those parents who want them to. They're the ones we target. We tell the parent that they have to come on the side of the school, against their own youngsters," he said.

The head does not bother with cases where there is no parental involvement, like the boy who is employed by his father to keep watch while he carries out robberies. Those are the parents who are taken to court for not sending their children to school. Durham Education Authority has prosecuted over 100 parents this year.

A 'form of bribery'


[ image: Burgers used as bribery]
Burgers used as bribery
Neighbouring Newcastle also believes in prosecution, where necessary, but favours a method it terms " positive reinforcement".

Children with good attendance records are specially rewarded with homework sessions and gifts at Newcastle United Football Club; free tickets to the cinemas and theme parks. The incentives begin at primary level with children being rewarded with free burgers, fries and milkshakes for simply turning up at school.

The acting head of Christchurch Primary school, Miles Clark, said: "It is a form of bribery, We're trying to set a pattern of behaviour, of school attendance and punctuality which will continue throughout their lives."


[ image: Theme park rides as a reward]
Theme park rides as a reward
Somewhat miffed, I told the Chair of Newcastle's Education Committee, Keith Taylor, that I had never got an award for simply going to school. Mr Taylor would not be swayed.

"Perhaps you didn't get good enough attendance records. It's the culture in Britain today, to reward excellence. Why not with children?" he said.

School is 'boring'

But there are those whom not even pagers or free burgers can reach. The committed "school refuser". Some of the lucky ones have ended up at schemes like the one run by the YMCA in Sunderland. There they learn to drive and maintain cars and motorbikes.


[ image: In Newcastle truants have been learning new skills]
In Newcastle truants have been learning new skills
They all share an intense dislike of school and many of these 14 and 16 year olds have not been there for two or three years. The teenagers can point out the former drug dealers among them and those who smashed car windows to steal radios before they were stopped by the YMCA.

Nearly all summed up school as boring - do the young people have a point? After all we have been told time and again that schools and teachers in Britain are below standard.

Keith Taylor said: "The children have a valid point. School should be relevant and their views should be respected. I wouldn't go to something I find boring. We need to start making the curriculum more relevant, more vocationally driven."


[ image: Vocational training is set to become more widespread]
Vocational training is set to become more widespread
Newcastle, with the help of local business, is starting a programme of introducing vocational courses like a car maintenance and other work related skills into schools for the disaffected youth between the ages of 14 and 16.

It is a trend which is being encouraged throughout the country under governments new proposals, in an attempt to lure the country's one million truants back to school.



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