Woody Allen famously observed that 80 percent of success is showing up. He was referring to the process of being selected for an acting part in a film, but it’s broadly true in life in general, and certainly school in particular.
Truancy is a serious business. It’s not just a case of ‘bunking off’ the odd lesson, and laughing it off. Perhaps most of us did that in our school days — I myself managed to get out of PE lessons for an entire year. But persistent truancy can affect life chances, and even a person’s predisposition to criminal activity.
For example, a research paper published in July 2016 found that truancy seems to be associated with negative outcomes in later life, such as problem drinking.
An older study  looked at the effects of truancy on school performance, the ethnic and gender make-up of pupils most likely to have unauthorised absences, and the reasons for truancy. It’s too detailed to report on here, but it’s well worth reading.
So, what can your school do to reduce, and perhaps even eradicate, truancy? Here are 6 suggestions.
Know who’s not present, and act immediately
Even without considering the possible longer term effects of truancy, there is one question that should be uppermost in your mind: if a pupil is not in school, then where is she? Is she safe? Has she had an accident? Is she in trouble? Has she merely been delayed?
In the not-so-good old days, it could take a comparatively long time for anyone in the school office to realise that a pupil wasn’t there. The teacher would take the register, and at the end of registration period send a pupil off with the register to take back to the school office. If that pupil shoved it in their bag and forgot about it, there would be mayhem. Even if he or she took it straight to the school office, the total time between the register being taken and the school office receiving it could easily be half an hour — and that’s even before the office staff start checking the register.
These days, especially using an application like Emerge, the office staff can have the data as soon as it’s entered. They can then phone or text the parent straight away and ask what’s going on.
Know who else isn’t there
It’s worth using your information management system to find out if there are any patterns to truancy. For example, is a Year 7 pupil always off school at the same time as a Year 10 pupil? Is a particular pupil always absent on a Thursday afternoon for no apparent reason?
Obviously, there’s a danger that you will see patterns that are not really there (it’s called apophenia, since you asked). However, you may uncover a genuine pattern: is a child being led astray by an older one? Is he having to look after his mum after dialysis every Thursday afternoon? Spotting a suspicious-looking pattern can at least serve to start a conversation.
Keep parents informed
Sending a message to parents asking where their child is just a few minutes after school has started also sends them another message: that the school is on top of all this. It shows that it would be difficult for a pupil to get away with skiving off for any length of time. It also shows that the school is a safe place, because it takes its duty of care seriously.
(But also keep them informed about the good things their child has done, otherwise every message from school will be opened with dread!)
Keep parents engaged
If your school is a vibrant place with lots going on (and hopefully it is), then make sure parents are not just kept informed, but invited to take part. You have to bear in mind that many people think that school is exactly the same now as when they were schoolchildren. If they had a rotten experience, they are probably less likely to insist on their children religiously attending school.
Let parents know how important school is, and offer advice
A page on your website, or as part of your newsletter, on the subject of truancy may be very useful. It’s worth considering that some parents may be at the end of their tether trying to get their kids to go to school. You should do what you can to help them.
There is good information on the Family Lives website at http://www.familylives.org.uk/advice/teenagers/school-learning/truancy/, and also on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/parents/truancy/.
Look at staffing issues
It’s important to face up to the possibility that the fault may not lie entirely with the parents or pupils, but with staffing. The study from Heather Malcolm and others cited earlier found that some pupils especially skipped classes taught by supply teachers. It’s easy to see why: supply teachers may be easier to hoodwink about having to run errands that don’t exist. They are also likely to experience more difficulty maintaining good behaviour in class than established staff.
If your trawl of data suggests that some classes are more likely to be missed than others, it might be wise to look at moving some pupils to different classes or altering the staffing for some lessons, looking at schemes of work, or lesson activities.
Hopefully, with a mixture of knowing the data, keeping parents involved, and experimenting with different teaching approaches if necessary, truancy can be dealt with as effectively as possible.
- The importance of school attendance, by M Rocque et al, 2016 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128716660520
- Absence from School: A study of its causes and effects in seven LEAs, by H Malcolm et al, 2003 http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/8655/1/RR424.pdf