Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Truancy is a useful label

I noticed this story in the Guardian; school truancy figures of nearly 12,000 for last year, released by the Ministry of Justice following a Freedom of Information request.

I feel a bit suspicious about the whys and wherefores of this information. Don't know where that rat comes from. Maybe it's an unusual time of year for truancy scare stories. Maybe the article misses information. Maybe because the only response to an FoI on school attendance prosecutions I can find was nearly 6 months ago in June 2011. Maybe we're all being buttered up for something.

But I'm not a reporter, so I'm probably looking in the wrong place, at the wrong people.

Anyway, the story took the usual suspicions with it: pictures of hoodies, mentions of benefits. We all know the sort of negligent kid-producing types who couldn't give a toss, right?

Of course the story travelled around. I listened to one interview with a young woman whose father was about to be prosecuted for her sister's truancy. She painted a clear picture from her description, although it wasn't the one that the Ministry of Justice maybe preferred me to have, of quaking parents standing in the dock.

I could imagine the terrible meltdown a little girl might experience on reaching the place she dreaded. Then it was like a Greek drama. I knew what would happen on the day the headteacher arrived to strong arm this terrified child onto authority premises. I could see the school office, filled with big looming shapes of unfamiliar, unpredictable adults: a headteacher, admin staff, an EWO, the community police woman, smiling with her mouth when her eyes didn't mean it. In the middle, a screaming, out of control, nine year old girl, flailing helplessly.

A dramatic, traumatic, heart gripping moment of cruelty.

Yet the brutality continues; the characters take part, as if they are locked together to make it so. The local authority, threatening and brutal; a family, threatening and coercing; a school, threatening and demanding; a child, threatening and tortured. Going round and round, providing a public show for us all: a message that says, this is what Authority will do in the face of your willful defiance.

Why does it happen like this? It would be inconceivable that no-one involved in this trauma, and I guess in hundreds of similar cases, has not thought of the words school phobic or school refusing.

It's also inconceivable that these players remain unaware of one solution, home education. The omission of this, in descriptions, interviews, discussions, media reports, is like an elephant in the room.

That omission alone is strange enough to me, but I guess there are reasons for it. I don't know what, in the family I heard in the news.

I know why in some cases, from experience, of parents with children who won't go to a school where they're registered. Home education is the last thing the parents want to be pushed into. They wish to make no starry-eyed paradigm shift, nor jump to any philosophical conviction about learning. Taking a child off the school roll is simply not practical, nor financially supportable, nor necessarily how they judge the best interests of the child.

The family I am thinking of, closely connected to us, have determinedly avoided that description, home education, even though for most daily activity, that's exactly what it appears.

Battles between parent and local authority have been fought. Months, years of meetings, reports, attempts at coercion, declarations of legal standing. Years on, the child now receives funding for one-to-one home tuition, access to flexi-school arrangements on her terms, provision for exams, supply of materials, text books, and resources.

In that case, the issue is clearly now not about truancy, although in the beginning, it looked exactly the same. The parent worked daily to move the agenda from the authority's preferred spin - neglectful parent couldn't give a toss - to one where the local council meets its responsibility, under law of a registered school pupil, recognising, resourcing and properly financing an education for a special needs child.

Then the prosecutions I'm now reading in the media make a bit more sense: a hard up local authority wants nothing of the prohibitive cost that goes with SEN territory. Individual learning plans? One-to-one tuition? Flexi-schools? They can't have this sort of parental demand. Imagine what would happen if other school-refusing families got wind of paid-for arrangements like this?

Better isolate a school refuser, shout the label TRUANT, define the terms of engagement as persistent refusal, fight any suggestion of special needs, hide all unwelcome, expensive issues, blame the parents, keep everyone frightened, insinuate negligence if need be. Rip the family up. Shatter the child with brute force. Make it public. That course of action is much more cost effective.

So it's not always a simple case of truancy. When a local authority continues not to hear the reasons for school refusal, continues not to see the child, continues not to understand the parent, then yes, I can almost hear a person cry Now let me have my say in court.

No comments: