Team leader for education welfare Karen Pothecary, left, and commissioner for Special Education Needs and alternative provision, Jackie Boxx. Picture by Jennifer Burton.
BEHIND THE NEWS Behind the grim statistic of Island secondary school truancy being nearly double the national average, there are intense efforts to get teenagers to go to school.
Beneath the bald statistics there are also tales of obstinacy, neglect and real misery over what most parents would tell you should be the best years of any young life.
The national truancy average — students missing 15 per cent or more of their school days — stands at 6.8 per cent. The Island figure between September 2011 and April this year was 12.9 per cent. That is despite the number of expulsions nearly doubling and suspensions rising too.
Now a joint forum, including senior educationalists, headteachers and chairs of governors, is being formed to find a way forward — because persistent absence and lack of attainment go hand-in-hand.
As the Island plummets down the truancy table, it has also slumped to next to bottom of the national GCSE attainment list.
Cllr Dawn Cousins is the IW Council cabinet member responsible for children’s services and education and she is all too aware that if a student is not in school he or she won’t be able to learn.
"There is a clear link between attendance and attainment and every parent can make a really worthwhile contribution to their child’s education simply by making sure they attend school as required.
"If there are reasons why this is a problem, then the thing to do is to seek support either from the school or from the educational welfare service.
"The last thing the council wants to do is to take official action. We would much rather achieve the required attendance through giving support and advice than by using the legal powers available.
"Parents who come to the council if they have a problem getting their child to school will find the local authority supportive and understanding."
But those parents who don’t make the effort can, increasingly, expect a caning from the council.
There was the high-profile recent case of the Newport woman jailed, named and shamed, for not sending her children to school.
And the latest statistics carry an uncompromising message.
Last year, there were 20 court cases with parents prosecuted for not sending their sons and daughters to school and 80 fixed penalty notices were issued.
This year, in the first term alone, there have been 30 court cases and 100 fixed penalties.
Early indications are that the get tough approach is improving attendance and nearly all the fixed penalties are being paid.
They are seen as quite a deterrent, too, at £120 per child, per parent.
PCSO patrols are being stepped up to further reduce post-registration truancy, where pupils disappear after clocking-in.
Two members of the local authority team working to with bring down truancy explained their basic carrot-and-stick approach.
Team leader for education welfare, Karen Pothecary, said: "We do everything in our power for it not to come to fixed penalty notice or to court.
"We know if issues of non attendance are tackled at an early stage then they are more easily put right. We are seeking the active involvement of parents in that."
And commissioner for Special Education Needs (SEN) and alternative provision Jackie Boxx, said: "We are actively working with schools to ensure students are working at appropriate levels and switching classes, where possible, so they are not put off from going to school."
'You can’t make me’
FOUR words continue to rip an Island family apart. When his mum and dad cajole, plead or tell James to go to school, he retorts: "You can’t make me..."
The teenager is right, of course.
Parents can’t frogmarch reluctant students through the school gates.
Their best approach is to talk with their child about the reasons for not wanting to go to school and seek all the help that’s out there.
Sandy agreed to tell her family’s story as an illustration of the devastating effect a teenager’s refusal to go to school can have.
Sandy is on anti-depressants, there is extreme friction in her relationship and the refusal of her teenager to go to school has rubbed off on her other children.
It started at middle school, when her son began to fall behind in lessons and became increasingly reluctant to go high school after he moved up.
Late in the day it was discovered dyslexia was at the root of learning difficulty but, by this time, a difficult pattern of behaviour was entrenched, which was not cured by a change of school.
Sandy is now pinning her family’s hopes on referral to a specialist unit where a small class will not intimidate her son, who she now realises is really frightened of school.
Education welfare, social services, mental health services and, more recently, Children’s Society counsellors have been involved — the latter course starting to bear fruit by opening up a line of communication James had closed off.
"We have tried everything. But, when I say to James: 'Come on, get out of bed — it’s time for school,’ the response I got was: 'You can’t make me.’
"And, he’s right — I can’t, and no parent can. If I used force, social services would become involved. At one stage, my son and I were squaring up to each other, it got so bad.
"I got him to his new school but he just sat himself in the office and wouldn’t move until he had to go home.
"I have been threatened with prosecution by the council but what would that achieve? I’m doing all I can but it’s tearing us all apart that in this vital GCSE year we just cannot get him to go to school and he’s too young for vocational training.
"Home tutoring wouldn’t work because I’m trying to hold down work.
"My eldest left home at one stage because she couldn’t stand the arguments but now, after three years, at last James is opening up to someone from the Children’s Society.
"And I have realised that in all my trying to get him to go to school, I wasn’t really listening to him."
The names have been changed to protect the identities of the mother and son.