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Why do children bunk off? Meet the parents. By Sophia Waugh

Blog | May 23, 2024

A massive problem facing schools at the moment is the huge number of children who are persistently absent.

‘Persistently absent’ means they are in school for less than 90 per cent of the time – 20.6 per cent, a fifth, of school children fall into this category. This is the average. Primary schools have a lower rate of absenteeism than secondary schools. You see what a genuine problem we face. How can we get absent children to pass any exams, fitting them for the next stage of their lives?

Only one in 20 children, whose attendance is 50 per cent or below, achieve five GCSE passes (at a four, which is the low pass), including English and maths. Compare the overall results of the rarely absent – 78 per cent of them achieve good grades – with the 36 per cent of the persistently absent who achieve good grades. And, of course, the most absent are those in GCSE years and those with free school meals.

What, we cry, are we to do?

Currently there is a great deal in the papers positing that the pandemic is to blame for all these absences, as it is to blame for the rising numbers of those not in work and claiming benefits. This must be one possible cause of the problem.

But who can turn this around? Those pupils most affected by the lockdown have passed through our doors and are now out in the world. Why are so many children still not turning up?

My own form has quite a high count of persistent absentees. There’s one I have literally not seen in three years, although he still appears on the school roll. This one has a hideous set of circumstances to deal with. I would argue this might make him safer in school than at home, but it’s hard to persuade anyone at home of that.

Most of them, however, are not so unlucky. These are the reasons I am given when I ring parents:

‘He slept really badly.’ ‘He’s got a cold.’ ‘He just goes back to sleep.’ ‘I’ve tried stroking his arm to wake him up, but he just won’t.’

And these are my answers: ‘Take away his Playstation.’ ‘If he hasn’t got a fever, send him in. I have tissues on my desk.’ ‘Wake him up more harshly.’ When I was really driven beyond patience, I said, ‘Walk into his bedroom and take the duvet off the bed and hide it somewhere. Turn off the Wi-Fi and the heating during the day. Cancel Netflix. Make it so unpleasant for him to be at home that he would rather be in school.’

One of my own daughters went through a pretty rebellious phase at school. She did very little work, had a dodgy boyfriend and pretty much did what she liked – but she always went to school. When I told her about a child who was refusing school because she saw ghosts in her house, my daughter, aghast (and alas rather impressed), said, ‘I’d be far too scared of you not to go to school.’

Isn’t that the point? Isn’t it the parents’ job to get their children through the school gates? We make calls, write threatening letters and send attendance officers to knock on doors, but actually the only people who can get the children into school should be their parents. Don’t we all fundamentally want the same thing for our children – that the next generation should do better than ours? That naughty daughter went on to get a first-class degree and now earns more than I ever have or will.

I do everything I possibly can for the children in my classes, but as I look down the list and predict their future results, ‘Never here – can’t help’ comes up more often than it should. It is not the after- effects of Covid that will hold them back – it is, in most cases, the after-effects of weak parenting.

It’s not good being so frightened of your children that you let them lie in bed; they need to be too frightened of you to stay there.