School truancy has just risen to its highest ever level. The highest ever level.
The government has unleashed its usual torrent of blame on parents and schools, while somehow finding its own efforts entirely laudable. Schools Minister Jim Knight ludicrously squawks:
"Our targeting of 'serial truants' is delivering impressive results. We will continue to support local authorities and schools facing the greatest challenges with targeted measures that we know work in improving attendance."
Jim "Parallel Universe" Knight will be well known to readers of this blog. And once again he seems to be lamentably ignorant of the facts.
Back in January, the Public Accounts Committee issued its report on Improving School Attendance exposing the multiple failures in Labour's multi-million pound anti-truancy programme. Jim should read it.
When it was introduced in the late nineties by then Schools Minister Estelle Morris, the programme was meant to reduce unauthorised absences by a third. In reality, as we know, such absences have reached record levels. The whole panoply of 10,000 special "mentors", 1,000 Learning Support Units, multi-agency teams, attendance audits, police in schools, and yes, yet more "consultants", has not only failed to deliver- it's actually taken us backwards:
And the financial cost has been huge. In January a figure of £885m was widely reported, but that only covered the period from 1997-98 to 2003-04. According to DfES another £560m has been spent on the same programme since then (page Ev 17 of PAC report). Making a GRAND TOTAL of £1,445m.
Now, nobody denies that unauthorised school absence is a problem, but this programme has been an catastrophic waste of money. So why might that be?
One reason is that it always incorporated the usual huge dollop of wishful thinking. As plainspeaking ex-headmaster Gerry Steinberg told the PAC: "What you are trying to do cannot work, because there is a hard core of truants who will not go to school, for one reason or another, and it does not matter what you do, you will never get that hard core of truants back to school". He recommended more special schools, pointing out that, as well as their general behavioural problems, many truants are “slow learners” or “educationally subnormal”.
But of course, special schools are entirely contrary to Labour's ideological fixation with "inclusion". The same fixation that originally spawned all those bog standard comps, and has sunk Blair's school reforms.
A second important reason for failure is that the programme was forced on schools top-down. It was all of a piece with the government's drive to cut the number of school exclusions. The aim was to force schools to keep their quotas of "challenging" children, and somehow find ways of dealing with them. Unsurprisingly, teachers were unenthusiastic from the start.
Government attempts to cajole headteachers with targets, or bribe them with insulting "truancy buster" cash prize rewards of £10,000, evidently failed. As a delegate to the Professional Association of Teachers conference told the visiting Estelle Morris in 1998, schools were "working overtime not ... to get children back in school, but to authorise their absence, so that they don't appear on their truancy figures. Truanting pupils reduce class sizes and disruption in school, and they significantly reduce the bureaucracy and workload of teachers."
Which is the authentic voice of teaching in the real world of Britain's state schools.
Most teachers knew this hopeless programme was going to fail right from the start, and there was virtually no buy-in. But the government went ahead anyway. Because they knew best, and after all it's not their money.
So that's another £1.5 billions of our money to make things even worse.
And the meter's still running.
Update: According to the Grauniad, one pupil in five now plays truant, "with truants in primary schools on average missing the equivalent of four days of education a year and those in secondary schools absent for seven days". Which is extraordinary. Tyler cannot remember one single incident of truancy at the various state schools he attended, despite catchments that included some pretty "disadvantaged" groups. Back then, truancy simply wasn't a runner.