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Tim Linehan

April 4th, 2023

Let’s stop talking truancy

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Tim Linehan

April 4th, 2023

Let’s stop talking truancy

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Political rhetoric that stigmatises absentee children as “truants” and an overly rigid target-driven education system risk aggravating the problem of children not attending school. Tim Linehan argues that it’s time to move from a punitive approach to one that puts the wellbeing of children first. 

Truancy is in the news. In February it was reported that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, had floated a proposal first mooted during the coalition government: to withdraw child benefit to children who are truanting. Gove said: “It is often the case that it is truanting or persistent absenteeism that leads to involvement in anti-social behaviour.” This focus on truanting follows an article in The Guardian based on research carried out by Professor Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University and Andy Eyles at UCL, which spoke of a “truancy crisis”.

Truancy is a no-nonsense word with strong political appeal, rather like the phrase “anti-social behaviour” in that it is lined with a protective moral judgement. Not many people are in favour of truancy or anti-social behaviour. The word is judge and jury. Those who are labelled are condemned.

Words matter

So, what’s the problem with truancy? Well, let’s look at the definition. Truancy is the action of staying away from school without good reason. Words commonly used are “unauthorised”, “intentional” or “unjustified” absence. Related words are “shirking” or “skiving”.  Its etymology suggests that the word’s roots are in the old French for a rogue, or vagabond.

In other words, a truant is a wilful miscreant, someone who absents themselves from school to the detriment of themselves and those how are trying to help them. The word has overtones of 1950s high jinks, or perhaps more recently, irresponsible parents who collude with their child’s absence because they either don’t care or don’t have their child’s best interests at heart.

The law reinforces this interpretation. Parents of children who don’t attend school risk fines, prosecution and even prison. Parents of truants are encouraged to sign a parenting contract, a statement by the parents in which they agree to comply with school requirements giving the clear message that their custody and care of their child does not meet school requirements. In the interests of transparency, I should make it clear that my daughter has only very sporadically attended school from 11-17. My daughter is officially a truant.

Parents of children who don’t attend school risk fines, prosecution and even prison.

In March, the Centre for Social Justice published a report, Lost and Not Found highlighting the fact 140,000 children were “severely absent’” (those who are absent from school than they are present) in the  2022 Summer term.  According to a BBC investigation, in the school year 2018-19, more than 272,000 fines with a total value of £14m were issued to parents in England for their children’s non-attendance. In the same year, government figures show that there were 771,863 “persistent absences”. That’s more than nine times the number of children who had more than one fixed-term exclusion. The Not Fine in School Facebook page, set up by and for parents of children with school attendance problems, has 37,500 members. There may well be an epidemic of something going on here, but it’s not truancy.

A wrong-headed approach

“Persistent absence” and “severe absence” are neologisms for truancy. Persistent absence used to be defined as when a child’s attendance fell below 80 per cent. This threshold was increased to 85 per cent in 2011 and to 90 per cent, the current figure, in 2015. Professor Lee Major and Andy Eyles point out that among children with low school attendance, a disproportionate number are on free school meals, with 28 per cent of primary pupils and 40 per cent of secondary pupils being persistently absence during the 2021/22 autumn term.

The punitive response to absence flies in the face of growing evidence of children who are unable to attend school for reasons of mental health, in particular anxiety, a neurological disorder or the stresses brought about by poverty and inequality. Moreover, we know that those who are diagnosed with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) are more likely to be summer-born. All these factors suggest that we organise our responses to persistent absenteeism around the structure of the school rather than the needs of the child.

Schools are measured on attendance and attainment and risk being downgraded by Ofsted if they fail to achieve their targets. The ratcheting up of the persistent school absenteeism threshold creates tensions between parents whose children are unable to attend school, undermining the close cooperation between parent, school and child that best practice demands. The escalating threshold also allows schools to police an increasing large cohort of parents and give head teachers the powers to prosecute. It adds perverse incentives to schools to exclude pupils whose absenteeism is reflected poorly in their attendance and attainment metrics.

Where do schools come in?

Given this investment of power in schools, the question might reasonably be asked: what are schools for? The obvious response is that they are there to educate and support, both academically and socially, their students, and that each student is deserving of this support.

History tells a different story. The motivation to legislate for compulsory schooling, under the education Acts of 1876 and 1880 was not straightforward. Alongside genuine humanitarian impulses, the Acts were intended to contain wayward children and educate them in the values of Christian morality at a time of political instability when an estimated 30,000 homeless children roamed the streets of London amid fears of insurrection. Inquiries into child labour in the mines and in agriculture revealed, to the horror of MPs, that many children had no Christian knowledge. The objective of education was, following Auguste Comte’s positivist philosophy, to create an organic society of like-minded people united in faith and morality.

The word “truancy” locates the problems within the child, positing responsibility with them and their families.

Gove’s comments demonstrate that the corrective purpose instilled remains intact. The word “truancy” locates the problems within the child, positing responsibility with them and their families. Schools have the power to require parents to force children suffering from anxiety to attend an institution that traumatises them, risking the relationship that psychologists will attest is the most important of all, that between parent and child.

One size does not fit all

We know about the impact of trauma on the brain through neuroscience and we’re learning more about how an inclusive education system needs to have wellbeing at the heart of it in order to support neurodiverse children (for example those with ADHD or autism). Some common symptoms they may exhibit to the school include forgetfulness, lack of punctuality, disruption in class, rule following and failure to complete (or even start) their homework, all of which are punishable offences. From their punishments, they learn that their presence at school is unwelcome and their personality is deviant and their anxiety and school refusal become coping mechanisms. Most guidelines issued by local authorities recommend behaviourist approaches to wean children back into school, oblivious to the reality that they are adding to the child’s trauma, rather than making reasonable adjustments to school practice to help the child.

What is required is a relational approach, one which moves away from correction, and punishment. We need to substitute the word “education” for school, which manifestly does not suit all children. We need to rethink a monolithic education system which diagnoses anxiety as oppositional or deviant behaviour. We need to understand that for those children for whom school is an unhappy place, the threat of sanctions increase anxiety.

Changing culture in schools and colleges is a long-term task. There are signs of progress. Since the 2017 Green Paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, governments have begun to create a new mental health workforce of community-based mental health support teams and encouraged every school and college to appoint a designated lead for mental health. Charities such as the Anna Freud Centre have been developing tools for schools and colleges to take a whole-setting approach to mental health and wellbeing.

This means working with parents as equals, and respecting parents as a child’s primary educator. Understanding that not all children respond well to a school environment; that punishments for having a disability, so long a staple in schools, is not only a cruel and unjust, it undermines a child’s education and destroys their confidence; that most children who are absent from school are absent for a good reason, namely they don’t feel safe there and it’s the school’s responsibility to adapt, not the child’s. By talking up truancy children, Gove is ensuring that schools will remain unsafe for neurodiverse children, and setting inclusive education back decades. Let’s stop talking truancy.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Photo by Dids via Pexels

About the author


Tim Linehan

Tim Linehan is a charity consultant and a member of Hackney Independent Parents (HiP). Previously he was Director of Campaigns at The Children’s Society.

Posted In: Education | Public Services and the Welfare State | Society and Culture
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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.