Truants, bullies and the recession

21 October 2009
The Guardian
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 We must help families torn apart by truancy, not criminalise them – but the services that help troubled children are under threat

The news that truancy rates are soaring won’t surprise many teachers like me. Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that children skipped more than 8m days of school last year. The reasons for the rising numbers of skivers are manifold, but I think there is one big underlying reason: the recession is really beginning to bite in many households.

In the UK, 4 million children live below the poverty line and the situation is getting worse: charities such as Save the Children are seeing families of four trying to feed themselves on £20 to £25 a week. That means that lots of children are living in households under severe stress, frequently working illegally or carrying out household chores for parents who need them at home. Take K, a student I taught some time ago. She wound up spending quite a few days at home looking after her younger brother and sister while her mum went out to work: she truanted at the insistence of her mother.

The statistics show that cases like K’s are increasingly common and – unlike when I taught K – increasing numbers of parents are being jailed; Ministry of Justice figures released this year reveal that 133 parents were jailed between 2000 and 2007 for failing to prevent their children’s truancy, while the number of court-issued penalty notices went up by 12% to 7,793 last year.

The statistics speak for themselves: families are being torn apart by truancy. Rather than addressing its root causes, the government is too keen to criminalise desperate parents. Work by charities such as Save the Children shows that when these families are helped properly, the problem of truancy can be solved much more cheaply and wisely than by throwing a child’s main care-giver in jail.

However, the recession is biting in more hidden ways, and even comparatively wealthy families are finding that rows about money are pulling them apart. Another pupil of mine – J – watched helplessly as his parents argued endlessly and ended up getting divorced. The acrimony depressed him so much that he lost all interest in school, finding the pressure to pass his GCSEs too much. It was much easier just taking the day off and sitting on tops of buses.

J then got mixed up with a bad crowd and becoming a casual drug-user; without the intervention of a devoted tutor team at my school he would have no doubt become a persistent truant and drug addict. Fortunately, my school has put a lot of money into pastoral care and we were able to nip the problem in the bud. However, I foresee scary times ahead when invaluable support staff are cut as the recession bites into the public purse. Because they are not frontline staff, it may be the case that they are not seen as vital to our schools, but my experience suggests that they are.

Another reason why children truant is because they are being bullied at school: I’ve seen numerous cases in my 20 years as a teacher. Once again the problem has been solved only when schools invest a lot of time and money in sorting out the problem: investigating its root causes, disciplining the bullies and setting very firm boundaries about acceptable behaviour in school. Take P, mercilessly mocked for the fact that his clothes were obviously very shabby and he clearly had little money: he found the name-calling intolerable. It was only when my school was alerted to this that the root causes of his truancy were addressed. It took time and patience to unearth the problem and untangle the reasons why he was refusing to go to school.

A survey by Beatbullying suggests that as many as one in three children truant because of bullying, with 20,000 bunking off school for the same reason. This survey was carried out nearly four years ago now when times were good; the new official statistics suggest that the problem has become a lot worse. Proper investment in public services was never more needed more than in these recession-hit times.

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