Policy Papers

Tackling truancy: why have the millions invested not paid off?

Nicola Sheldon |

Executive Summary

  • Millions of pounds of investment in policies to improve school attendance levels have delivered only modest gains in school attendance over the past 10 years.
  • Cutting levels of absenteeism was a major priority for central and local government and schools for 30 years after 1880 but since the 1920s attendance rates have hardly shifted, despite improvements in children's health and general levels of affluence.
  • Geographical differences in school attendance have a long history and truancy is clearly linked to social deprivation but
  • Social deprivation isn't a complete explanation : some schools in deprived areas have much better attendance rates than others.
  • Recent policies include a mix of punitive measures and 'social work' approaches to support the families involved.
  • These policies do not address two key features of the problem - longstanding systemic weaknesses in the enforcement system and the large number of parents who condone casual absences.
  • Currently schools are held accountable whilst local authority education social workers are responsible for getting truants back into school - this division between accountability and responsibility is neither logical nor successful.
  • Radical thinking about the role of the legal process, the location of responsibility and accountability for absenteeism, and better targeting of resources where they will have greatest effect would improve the impact of policies.


In February 2005 the National Audit Office (NAO) published its report, 'Improving School Attendance in England' which noted that absence rates in state schools had shown little consistent improvement over the preceding eight years of the Labour government, despite total spending on strategies to improve attendance costing £885m. This figure has now passed £1 billion. In February 2008, the government published statistics showing some improvement in absence rates due to a 'sustained drive' but the minister also conceded that, 'A significant minority of children continue to miss large amounts of their schooling. In 2007 just seven per cent of pupils in maintained secondary schools accounted for 32 per cent of all absence and 62 per cent of unauthorised absence ... Persistent absentees are more likely to have poor educational outcomes and disengage from learning altogether.' He stressed the need for the government to continue to 'bear down' on absence in schools.

Such words convey the impression that truancy has been a difficult, even intractable, problem for local authorities. Surprisingly, the history of efforts to reduce truancy are little known in official circles, despite the fact that many of the punitive approaches first imposed on parents in the 1870s and 1880s have come back into use in recent years. On 21 May 2008, The Times noted that record numbers of parents are being fined for their children's non-attendance at school - a total of 16,550 were served with penalty notices in 2007. High profile court cases, such as that of Patricia Amos, twice jailed for her daughters' non-attendance, have attracted considerable media attention.

An understanding of the way in which official views of truancy have changed over time sheds some light on the reasons for this revival of 'Victorian' approaches by the authorities. However, none of the approaches currently in use address two important and long-lasting features of the problem - the systemic weaknesses in the organisation of enforcement which have persisted for over a hundred years and the way in which 'local cultures' affect attendance, particularly of those schools in poor neighbourhoods. There is evidence that the characteristic features of truanting behaviour have remained the same over many decades. However, we should not take this as a 'counsel of despair' but an opportunity to review the past record, understand the origins of the current problem and perhaps even throw off the 'dead-hand' of history by considering more radical change than has yet been attempted.

Measurement and definition

Two key issues face any commentator on the problem of truancy. Firstly, the truancy problem can only be measured in terms of school attendance statistics as a whole. Some absenteeism is clearly justified, for instance when due to sickness. However, all absence is the result of a decision by parent, child, or both, that the 'cause' justifies not attending school. The second issue relates to who defines whether an absence is due to truancy. Schools have usually made this judgement, and this leads to great diversity of definitions of truancy. Efforts by local authorities over the past twenty years to distinguish between 'authorised' and 'unauthorised' absences have proved less helpful than expected since schools operate different judgements about whether an absence, say for a term time holiday, should be authorised.

Both categories of absence are targeted by Government initiatives to reduce truancy. The average level of absence in English schools for 2007 was 6.5%, compared with a 10% rate earlier in the twentieth century, albeit with an earlier leaving age. Ultimately, the full extent of truancy cannot be measured but given the improvements in the general health and affluence of the child population over the past 50 years, it is logical to make less allowance for sickness absence than in the past within the attendance statistics, thus suggesting a fairly static situation over a long period of time.

The persistence of truancy

Research over many years suggests that the peculiar persistence of school truancy needs to be explained in terms of deep-seated cultural attitudes and social problems. In the words of Ken Reid, 'After more than 130 years of compulsory schooling and a century of research into school absenteeism and truancy we are little nearer to finding definitive solutions.' Reid has noted the continuity in average absentee rates in different regions of the country, as well as the link between social disadvantage and truancy and even the persistence of truancy in families over the generations. Yet the phenomenon remains a puzzle; some schools in deprived areas have much better attendance rates than others and it is by no means a common characteristic of the poor that their children fail to attend school regularly.


A hundred years ago, weak attendance was strongly linked to family poverty, especially where the family had a large number of younger children, but the same was still true of many truants in a study in 1947 by the Ministry of Health. This showed the persistence of high levels of absence by older girls with younger siblings and the close relationship between absenteeism and lack of parental interest in the child's progress at school. There was also a clear link between social class and absence from school, whether for sickness or for other reasons. These features of attendance problems still persist today. For instance, higher levels of absence amongst older girls were noted in a 2004 study of school attendance problems in deprived inner-city areas.

The 1947 study also highlighted the 'neighbourhood' problem. Wide variations in the absence rates of children from the same social class appeared to depend on the neighbourhood of the school they attended. The influences from the local neighbourhood tended to set 'standards of acceptability' amongst parents and children in terms of absenteeism from school. This 'neighbourhood factor' seemed to influence the extent of occasional absences taken as well as the level of persistent absenteeism in the local school.

The NAO in its 2005 Report stated that action by schools today to counter a local culture which does not value education highly is a critical factor in reducing absenteeism. According to the NAO, schools wishing to improve attendance therefore need to 'focus on changing their own culture towards attendance first' (presumably as a means of influencing children's and parents' attitudes). The longevity of these local cultural influences over families' and children's behaviour suggests they are difficult to change and that they will continue to act as a powerful corrective to the efforts of the state and schools in socially or economically deprived areas to achieve high levels of attendance.

Methods of enforcement

The system for enforcing school attendance has, like the cultural factors outlined above, also demonstrated significant continuity over the past century. Shortly after the introduction of the universal provision of elementary schooling in 1870, legal sanctions were introduced in the Education Act of 1876 enabling local authorities to employ attendance officers who would follow up absentees, visit homes and pursue prosecutions of parents. From the start, the range of penalties included fines, attendance orders and in extreme cases the removal of children from the parental home. The legal framework for enforcing attendance has remained substantially unaltered from that time to the present, save for the fact that the age of children covered by compulsory attendance has been increased at regular intervals - under acts of 1893, 1899, 1918, 1944 and 1969, so that it now covers all children aged 5-16.

Another element of continuity has been the nature of the enforcement agencies developed to deal with truanting children and their parents. Initially, local authorities had hoped to employ middle-class 'lady visitors' who would gently remind parents of their responsibilities. Very soon, however, the policing role came to dominate activity as in the 1880s and 90s recalcitrant parents were targeted for attention by largely male attendance officers. 'Truancy sweeps' were well-known, especially in poor parts of towns and cities and some authorities employed attendance officers to specialise in 'street work', sometimes working with a specially appointed policeman. Their role, like today, was to question children not in school, note their home and school details and return them to school if it was clear they were truanting. In most cases, a warning was given to parents and prosecution was used only as a last resort. In 1887 for instance, the lone Attendance Officer for the city of Oxford made more than 6,000 visits to children's homes and schools, from which more than a thousand warning notices were issued, but only 128 parents were actually taken to court. The fact that the Oxford School Board consistently outperformed similar authorities, such as York, in terms of school attendance suggests that their relentless pursuit of truants and their parents had concrete results.

The reason for the reliance on persuasion and official warnings was the inadequacy of the legal process as a remedy for truancy. From the start, parents were aware that court prosecution was a last resort, as it was expensive, lengthy and subject to the whims of magistrates who might side with the parent. Fines were low and once it was known that family possessions could not be seized to pay them off, often ignored. Many local authorities had years of unpaid fines outstanding in the late nineteenth century. Even when the courts imposed attendance orders, children might return to school for a short while and later fall back into habits of non-attendance.

Behind all this activity by local authorities and their attendance officers was pressure from respectable ratepayers to curb the nuisance of anti-social behaviour, such as insistent begging or vandalism thought to be linked to the numbers of unsupervised children hanging around in urban streets. Bradford School Board was not alone in publishing in its regular reports a comparison between falling juvenile crime rates and the rise in attendance in its schools. At the same time, they published details of violent attacks by parents on attendance officers which had been subsequently prosecuted through the courts. It was a tough policy for a tough problem.

Change in the twentieth-century: the flawed evolution of the Education Welfare Service

The introduction of local education authorities (LEAs) by the Balfour Act of 1902 spread effective practice into rural areas, standardised the role of the attendance officer and improved their ability to monitor and track children who had poor attendance. The most efficient authorities, such as Birmingham, completed an annual census of their working-class neighbourhoods, recording every family and its young children ready for follow-up when they reached school age. By 1910, average absence rates by schoolchildren had declined to around 10%, a highly-creditable figure given the incidence of infectious illness amongst the under-14s at the time.


Since the 1870s, schools had been held accountable by school inspectors for the monitoring of pupils' attendance and treasury grants had always depended in part on the attendance of children as well as their examination results. It was this direct relationship between school income and attendance which explains why the Victorian system focused so much on attendance. Some authorities even linked teachers' pay directly to school attendance. However, from 1919 onwards block grants to local authorities meant that school attendance was no longer directly linked to school income at all, thus removing a major incentive for schools and LEAs to improve attendance. It is not surprising therefore that schools and local authorities turned their focus elsewhere in the following decades.

By the 1920s, the enforcement role itself was under considerable challenge from alternative ways of approaching truancy. Partly this was due to the fact that persistent truants were a small minority of children, typically those from very poor homes or with special needs. Truancy was sometimes seen as a symptom of emotional disturbance best treated by therapy in a child guidance clinic. Alternatively, it was ascribed to extreme family poverty which would be best addressed by social and economic improvement. These explanations left attendance officers with a more limited policing role yet also appeared to place on them a broader responsibility for child welfare which was impossible to fulfil, given the resources available at the time. Some saw their role as child protectors, whilst others tried to act as a conduit for charity aid and welfare support to poor families.

Nonetheless, the legal framework and policing obligation of the attendance officer remained, contributing to a period of confusion and disillusionment. During the 1920s and 30s, attendance officers complained that local authorities did not support them against recalcitrant parents. Some thought their local expertise was being ignored in favour of female child welfare professionals. Delineations of professional expertise became more complex over the succeeding fifty years as new areas of social support were carved out which employed qualified social workers. During that time, education welfare officers (as attendance officers were titled from 1939) had neither a clear career structure nor any requirement for professional qualifications. The work came to be seen as primarily social work, but it never lost its policing element. The role was weakened by its lack of professional authority, but while there was little attention being paid to the use of punitive approaches, it was a workable if half-hearted approach to truancy.

Tackling truancy in the twenty-first century: the long shadow of history

The roots of renewed interest in truancy and school attendance lie in the 'Great Debate' about education initiated by Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, in 1976, and was sustained during the following years of Conservative rule. The desire of the Thatcher governments to make public services more accountable paved the way for league tables and targets for school performance. The waste of resources implied by unnecessary absence was an obvious focus for attention from those wishing to see a more efficient use of public money. Children who had truanted and either failed to sit exams or performed poorly brought down school success rates and pushed truancy up the agenda for both local authorities and schools.

By the late 1990s, the truancy issue was seen as urgent by the Labour government since thousands of children were leaving school with no qualifications and potentially swelling the ranks of unemployed or delinquent youth. However, increased attention to school attendance highlighted several weaknesses in the system of enforcement which had not been addressed because attendance levels had been deemed 'satisfactory' in the recent past. These weaknesses related to the relationship between schools, educational welfare as a service and the attendance enforcement process.

Most noticeable was the isolation of local education welfare departments from other services designed to support families with problems. Rather than integrating them within local government children's departments, they had largely remained within local education departments. Despite this, the work of the education welfare services was often not closely integrated into that of local schools. The education welfare officer (EWO) might be 'attached' to a group of schools but essentially worked apart from the everyday life of the school and the teaching staff.

Effective enforcement depended on good communication between all the parties concerned - the school, the EWO and the home - which was difficult to achieve if education welfare officers were not based on school premises. Complaints about poor communication and lack of cooperation had been common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at a time when raising attendance was a priority for schools and local authorities. Now they re-emerged under the pressure of meeting targets for improving school attendance at the end of the twentieth century.

Problems of communication stretching back to before 1900 suggest there was a structural problem in the way in which the service had been set up in the first place. Headteachers had often complained that attendance officers were failing to chase up persistent truants regularly enough or let them know the outcomes of enquiries. The legal process, once embarked upon, seemed to stretch out for many weeks, whilst schooling was being missed. Frustrations had long been just as apparent on the attendance officers' side. Sometimes they complained that schools did not give them information on serious truants early enough, or contrastingly, that names had been supplied when absence had not reached a serious level, or that cases were referred when the reasons for absence were already known. Problems of cooperation and coordination between the attendance department and the school over truancy could in rare cases degenerate into a serious dispute.

The underlying problem in the relationship between the school and the enforcement process concerned the separation of responsibility from accountability. The key responsibility for tracking truants and ensuring their return to school lay with the attendance office, which was organised centrally by the local authority. Although attendance officers visited a group of schools which drew their pupils from the district, school choice (just as important an issue then as now) meant that there was no strict correlation between the pupils of a particular school and the attendance officer responsible for chasing them up when absent. Neither did school staff have any control over the efforts of the attendance officers to get pupils back into school beyond supplying the initial information. Yet it was schools who were (and are still) held accountable for the attendance of their pupils by central government inspectors and in national league tables. This division of responsibility and accountability has remained essentially unchanged into the twenty-first century.


The persistence of absenteeism at a rate of about 10% for most of the twentieth-century and the relatively modest gains in levels of attendance in recent years, despite the large amounts spent on the problem, suggest that truancy is unlikely to go away as an issue in the long-term. There appears to be a 'hard core' of families and children who, for various reasons, have significant resistance to the supportive, persuasive or punitive efforts of the state. The historical context shows that truanting has always been more common amongst those who value education least but that the particular 'local culture' does have an impact on family behaviour. It seems that we tend to take our cues from our neighbours about what is acceptable and what is not. This would point to the value to schools in having a mix of children from different socio-economic backgrounds. This ensures that the children from less supportive backgrounds can benefit from a more aspirational school culture which positively reinforces good attendance. At present, trends are heading in the opposite direction with reports of increased social segregation in schools at both primary and secondary level - this is likely to make it more difficult for schools and education welfare services to achieve improvements in attendance.


The seeming intractability of truancy might suggest also that strategies for enforcement of the law on compulsory attendance are likely to have a limited impact. Evidence from the past suggests progress can be hindered if systems and procedures fail to work effectively and promptly. The tension between the enforcement of the law on compulsory attendance and the welfare role of supporting families remains a problem, as does the challenge of mediating between schools and 'hard to reach' families. The state's insistence on compulsory attendance has not changed and it is this which forms the bedrock of schools' relationships with parents and children. However, if all parts of the system - schools, education welfare and other support services - work to achieve a common and clearly understood objective, it is possible to reinforce good attendance and deter absenteeism. The challenge of making the system work in this way, despite the structural 'gaps', is just as great today as in the past, though circumstances of families and society may have changed.

In some areas of the country, the critical weaknesses in the system are being addressed by locating education welfare staff in schools where they work alongside other social work professionals and teachers to ensure a coordinated approach. However, until the division between those responsible for attendance enforcement and those accountable for its outcomes is ended, there will always be scope for a lack of understanding between schools and education welfare services. A fruitful way forward has been proposed in a report on 'social pedagogy' recently published by the Thomas Coram Research Unit. This recommends a flexible professional qualification for all types of child care social work and the integration of a 'holistic' approach to child and family welfare within the education system. In Germany and Scandinavia, social pedagogues are employed by schools as permanent members of their staff, alongside and with the same status as teachers. It remains to be seen whether the Government will have the courage to throw aside the historical baggage of over 130 years of school attendance work, based on legal enforcement and extra-school structures, to embrace a new model of the child welfare professional services integrated across education and family policy. It would be the logical culmination of the 'Every Child Matters' agenda and the 'single plan' for children, but would require a recognition that previous initiatives have been hamstrung by inherited structures and need to be rethought from the bottom up.

Establishing the 'reality behind truanting' is both challenging yet enticing, to the historian as much as to the present day educationalist. History certainly cannot offer ready made remedies, though it is all too popular for politicians to return to the policies of their predecessors, especially where the problem of anti-social behaviour is concerned. The difficulty of understanding aberrant child and family behaviour remains but the way in which it has been treated in the past is an important starting point for understanding why we are where we are today and what needs to be changed in the future.

Further Reading

E.R. Bransby, 'Study of Absence from School', The Medical Officer, 86,1951.

Department for Children, Schools and Families, School Attendance www.dfes.gov.uk/schoolattendance

M. Morris, and S. Rutt, An Analysis of Pupil Attendance Data in Excellence in City Areas: An Interim Report, 2004.

National Audit Office, Improving School Attendance in England, February 2005 www.nao.org.uk/publications.nao_reports/04-05/0405212.pdf

P. Petrie and others, Pedagogy - a Holistic, Personal Approach to Work with Children and Young People, Across Services Briefing Paper Update,(Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London, 2008).

K. Reid, 'The Causes, Views and Traits of School Absenteeism and Truancy: An Analytical Review', Research in Education, 74, 2005, pp. 59 - 82.

About the author

Nicola Sheldon is a researcher on the History in Education project at the Institute of Historical Research. The project, which is funded by The Linbury Trust, will review the teaching of history in Britain over the last 100 years. Dr Sheldon is examining the period from the 1960s to the present day, from the onset of comprehensive education via the still-continuing debates on the national curriculum. She was previously a Post-doctoral Research Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she specialised in historical research into policies on school attendance. She has been chair of governors for an Oxford secondary school and formerly worked in senior management in further education for 16 years. nicola.sheldon@sas.ac.uk

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