‘Bunking off’. It’s an expression we all use, when what we are really talking about is truancy. One might ask, “What’s in a name?”. Unfortunately, the term ‘bunking off’, with its undertones of simply being ‘naughty’ or having a laugh at the expense of authority, trivialises the issue. Truancy is a serious business, with real consequences.
Let’s look at it from the pupil’s point of view first, and then from the school’s perspective.
The child’s perspective
There is now plenty of research to suggest that missing even a relatively short period of school can affect a child’s grades. For instance, research reported by the Department for Education found very strong, and statistically significant, links between absence and attainment. Even one day out of school is apparently enough to have an effect.
“Ah”, you say. “That may be the case, but in our school we don’t have any unauthorised absences, only ‘official’ ones.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same: lower attainment.
Similar results have been found in many research studies in the USA. For example, having a couple of days off a month doesn’t sound bad. But when you add them all up they total around 20 days a year, which is the definition of ‘chronic absence’. That is bad news, because children with a chronic absence record are not only likely to attain lower grades than they might otherwise have, but are also more likely to drop out of school altogether in their teens.
There is even research that shows that a pupil is more likely to drop out of school in later years if their mother dropped out of school. In other words, absenteeism can affect future generations as well.
Bottom line: absenteeism can spoil a child’s life chances, and possibly even their children’s life chances. And it’s even worse for children who miss school in their early school days, and come from poor families. Why? Because better off children are more likely to be able to have the resources at home to help make up for lost time.
So far we’ve been talking about absenteeism in general, but when one looks at truancy in particular the situation is worse. The effects in the short term have been shown to include lower grades, dropping out of education, substance abuse and even teenage pregnancy.
In the longer term, the effects include adult criminal behaviour, leading to prison, and failing marriages. Research in England in 2002 found that children aged between 11 and 15 who truanted were 6 times more likely to become smokers than those who didn’t.
Also, over half of truanting pupils reported drinking in the week the survey took place, compared with fewer than 20% of their peers.
The school’s perspective
Not everything is directly within the school’s control. For example, some students may take time off because they feel isolated and alone.
Research in America has also found that 23% of truants choose to skip school because they do not feel safe in their school environment. Moreover, draconian punishment when the child does return tends to be counteractive.
So what can a school do? Here’s a checklist you might wish to consider.
Provide a safe environment
This is one of the primary functions of the school, embodied in the phrase loco parentis, which means ‘in place of the parents’. It stands to reason that if a pupil feels safer somewhere other than school then he or she might think it logical and sensible to go there instead.
For example, when new pupils joins the school, especially if they are the only one from their feeder school, what system is in place to help them meet other people and simply just be able to find their way around? In many schools pupils are simply left to their own devices.
Know who is absent, quickly
Data is the bedrock of decision-making. One of the most basic pieces of data is the question: “Who is not in school today?” That’s a question which needs to be answered by the end of registration period at the latest, because that gives the school office time to contact the parents and find out what’s going on.
Know who else is absent
One of the benefits of using software to keep track of attendance and absenteeism, even in a very small school, is that it can highlight patterns and correlations that you could easily miss when doing it manually.
For example, if a child is missing the second Wednesday of every month, what is that about? It needs to be investigated.
If a year 7 pupil is always absent at the same times as a year 10 pupil, is there something unsavoury going on?
And a note for local authorities and multi-academy trusts: you really need to look out for correlations between schools too. For instance, is a pupil from school X always off on the same days as a pupil from school Y?
Focus on all absences
It’s tempting to focus your energies on truancy because that’s the worst kind of absenteeism, but it’s important not to forget about authorised absences too, because of the negative effects of absenteeism on grades.
Finally, make sure that parents know the damaging effects of not ensuring that their child goes to school, or even keeping them off for the odd day for what they believe is a legitimate reason.
Even the shortest period of absence is bad for children, and truancy is even worse. Schools owe it to themselves, parents, but above all the children, to ensure that it’s acted upon immediately and, ideally, prevented altogether.
Groupcall has been one of the market leaders in school-home communications and MIS data integration software for schools for over 15 years. Their products provide real time of data from MIS information in school, out in the field or even at home. To find out more about how Groupcall can save you time and money, as well as help improve your school’s attainment and achievement, visit their website at www.groupcall.com.