Tackling the truants

Truancy remains a problem. Picture posed by model
Truancy remains a problem. Picture posed by model
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Truancy rates are dropping - but there is still work to do. Education reporter Ruth Scammell investigates.

There is a daily routine that should be a habit.

But there are still problems with children either not giving a valid reason for not attending school, or for going on holiday during term-time.

Figures show that in the academic year of 2010/11, 488 fines were handed out by Portsmouth City Council to parents for taking their children out of school to go on holiday.

And last year this figure rose to 551.

Meanwhile, 169 fines were handed out in 2010/11 to parents whose children had had an unauthorised absence – or truancy.

Last year this figure again rose to 221.

Yet overall figures released by the Department for Education show that the number of persistent absentees across the city are down by 1.3 per cent from 1,603 last year, to 1,329 this year, during the autumn term and the spring term.

Across Hampshire covering Gosport, Fareham and Havant, the figures have also seen a drop of 1.2 per cent from 8,788 last year to 7,041 this year.

Last year, 70 fines were issued by Hampshire County Council, compared to 46 the previous academic year when there are ongoing persistent absences.

However, issuing fines is a decision made by the individual schools, and not all headteachers choose to issue fines to parents.

In addition to this, some headteachers will issue fines to parents through the school rather than through the council.

But Richard Harvey, programme leader in child support services at Portsmouth City Council, says it’s a good way to get the message across to parents about the importance of their child’s education.

‘The increase on fines has been year on year and seems to still be going that way,’ he says.

‘There are a number of factors that affect people going on holiday in term time, particularly the economic situation.

‘For headteachers this was a big factor that they wanted us to address. Parents would have been spoken to by the school and offered some support.’

Mr Harvey said the more years children spend in school the better their attendance becomes.

‘It’s a habit thing,’ he says. ‘They get used to being there.

‘For schools, it’s the thing that is most important to them.

‘The parents come in and request a holiday. If it’s during examination time or at the start of the school year they should be in school and not on holiday.

‘But from a parents point of view it’s a different perspective. If you have got two or three children that’s a massive saving.

‘That’s something heads have been collectively asking for for a number of years. From an academic perspective we can’t be condoning that.’

Mr Harvey says he hopes that parents reconsider taking their children out of school for a holiday.

‘We want to be sending a very strong message to parents to think twice about it.

‘People will be thinking twice about it anyway.

‘There are only 39 weeks a year in school. There is plenty of time.

‘Our figures have in the last two years been at national average for overall absence which is fantastic.

‘Attendance relates to a whole range of things. It’s about what’s happening in the school and the leadership in the school and what’s happening in the classroom.

‘It makes a massive difference to the child in school.’

Parents are fined £50 or £100 if they don’t pay the fine within 42 days. If they choose not to pay the fine they can be taken to court.

Mr Harvey adds: ‘I think it’s about the way that schools deal with the parents. At King Richard School they talk to parents at parent evenings to remind them.

‘Parents will get a phone call if their child isn’t at school.

‘We are stronger on attendance than we have ever been. It’s about support. The support is in the school and that’s where parents want to go to for support and to talk about issues.’

Meanwhile, councillor Roy Perry, executive lead member for children’s services at Hampshire County Council, says the council is working very hard with schools, parents and children to ensure that pupils are attending school.

‘It’s good that the figures are going down,’ he says.

‘Attendance at school is important. We are always pleased to see that schools are doing their best to be on top of the situation.

‘We work closely with schools. It’s mainly the responsibility of the schools. But we provide training to the schools to maintain and manage attendance and encourage schools to challenge parents where there are unauthorised absences.

‘It can be a difficult thing to do but we actively always support the schools where there is no reasonable explanation for a child’s absence.

‘We have child support services which work with the schools and the families.

‘We work with troubled families too. Absence from school and truancy is a factor of troubled families so that’s an area where we are working to help the schools, the parents and the children.

‘I think we have got to be firm. We will back the schools and take a firm approach to unauthorised absences.’

The headteacher’s view

AT KING Richard School in Paulsgrove, staff have been working hard to ensure children are not absent from school.

Staff work with parents to speak to them about the importance of school attendance.

Fines will be issued if children are taken out of school for holidays or if they are persistently absent.

Adam Dare, headteacher at King Richard School, says: ‘Very few of our kids play truant.

‘It’s about getting the message across to parents that just because you say it’s alright for your kid to be off, doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to be absent.

‘We have run a lot of work with parents to be clear about when kids should or shouldn’t be off sick because they are ill.

‘If parents don’t contact us, we always contact them. We always want a response from parents about why kids are off.

‘After five days we ask for medical proof that their child is off ill. Some of the surgeries in the area will give a note.

‘We have got an arrangement where the school nurse will phone up and look at all the child’s symptoms.

‘If they haven’t come up with a good reason for being off sick, the absence is unauthorised. Then we will send a warning which has a positive effect and they come back into school.

‘If they don’t improve, we send a fixed penalty notice.’

And Mr Dare says at the school they do have problems with parents choosing to take their children out of school for holidays, most notably in September, early October, and then in May, June and July.

‘We don’t authorise it – we treat it as an unauthorised absence,’ he adds.

‘I don’t think parents should do it. When you are a parent, you make sacrifices. I’m a parent and I have made sacrifices. One of those is to make sure your children are at school.

‘You have to give up those cheap holidays. It’s one of those things. All of our cleaners, and Learning Support Assistants and people that work in our kitchen, they have to stick with it as well.

‘I don’t think having a cheap holiday is a human right. I think having an education is a human right.’