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Schools: Truancy

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the latest truancy rate for schools in England and Wales.

My Lords, attendance rates are the highest ever recorded, with more than 70,000 more pupils in school every day than in 1996-97. Information is collected on authorised and unauthorised absence. Unauthorised absence includes unexplained or unjustified absence such as lateness, unauthorised holidays during term time and truancy. In 2008-09, the percentage of half-days missed through unauthorised absence in England in maintained primary schools was 0.64 per cent. In state-funded secondary schools it was 1.49 per cent and in specialist schools it was 2.14 per cent.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. At the same time, I should like her to consider that some 67,000 children miss school every day. Is it not high time that we got bureaucracy off the backs of schools and gave head teachers and teachers full authority locally to tackle truancy, not “unauthorised absence”?

My Lords, the important thing is to get children and young people attending school. That is why this Government have focused on driving up attendance. That means encouraging parents not to take holidays during term time and making sure that any kind of absence that is not absolutely necessary is not authorised by schools. That is why I am particularly proud that we can say now that attendance at schools is at its highest rate since records began.

Is there any correlation between truancy figures and those schools that have home-school outreach workers? What will the Government do to ensure that every school can afford at least one of these officers, who can work not just with the school and parents, but also with other agencies such as the Youth Justice Board?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point to the importance of the role of school support staff in tackling problems of attendance. We are particularly concerned that schools work together to share expertise and advice in promoting high and improving attendance; so it is particularly worrying that the choice in this general election is between the Government and an opposition party that would reduce the numbers of support staff below the increase of 200,000 that we have achieved, which would undermine the achievement of this Government in driving up attendance.

My Lords, perhaps I may go back to the Question. When the Government came to power, their focus was on education, education, education: yet despite more than £1 billion being spent on anti-truancy measures, the truancy rate has risen to record levels—up to 44 per cent. Will the Minister say exactly what the money has been spent on?

My Lords, I must explain to the noble Baroness that what we are looking at here is driving up attendance. That means that we are very concerned to tackle unauthorised and authorised absence. We want to make sure that schools are not allowing parents to take children out of school for holidays and that truancy is tackled in the round. I am particularly pleased that all the investment that we have made in behaviour partnerships and school support staff has resulted in the best ever attendance rates for our young people in this country since records began.

My Lords, in drawing on my experience of some 20 years as chairman of a juvenile court, does the Minister agree that early truancy is often a sign of other serious child or family behavioural problems? Given that—I refer specifically to truancy—can the Minister give your Lordships the national truancy figures for each of the past five years? If, as I suspect, these are not available, can she please ask that any future Government will make them available so that this House can do its job of scrutiny in keeping government policies and their effectiveness under review?

I understand the noble Baroness’s frustration in wanting to look specifically at truancy. The issue here is: does it matter whether a parent, who has absolute responsibility for making sure that their child is in school, knows that their child is bunking off? We have to make sure that all unauthorised absence, whether it is in the knowledge of the parent or not, is tackled. We need to make sure that children are in school—that is why we have to focus on getting attendance up—and we need parents to play their role in that. That is why we have worked relentlessly throughout the system to get parents to take their responsibility to get children in school.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that some children are absent from school because of difficulties in the school, such as bullying? Can she say what strategies are in place to combat bullying in both primary and secondary school?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point: if a young person is persistently missing school we have to look at the underlying reasons for that. Sometimes that means that the young person may need additional support. It may mean that they are having difficulty at school and that has to be properly looked into. That is why it is important that in the school system we have a sophisticated approach to understanding attendance and that we look at making sure that schools work together. We need to look at issues such as bullying inside school but also on the way to and from school. Schools really must work together on behaviour.

Can the Minister point out the necessity, addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, of disaggregating these figures, so that we know why children are away? Some children need to be addressed themselves and others need to be addressed through their parents. It really is no good getting this the wrong way round.

I agree, and that is why we have focused relentlessly on making sure that parents fulfil their legal obligation to make sure that they get children into school. That is also why we have ensured that there are parenting contracts and processes in place to make sure that where parents do not engage or do not know where their children are, they do their bit, get their kids to school and the system supports them to do that.