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Truancy or absenteeism? A school governance perspective

Philip F. Marsh
In 1997-1998 a study of truancy and absenteeism in a regional area in Queensland was undertaken on behalf of the Youth Interagency Support Team (YIST) by the Centre for Social Science Research at Central Queensland University. A survey of schools was conducted to identify the issues which school communities believed lead to unauthorised absences. The study found that while truancy was considered an issue, of more importance in terms of school governance were parent-approved absences. The study found that parent-approved absences, socio-economic factors and poor school-family relations combined to contribute to the high incidence of student absenteeism in the state schools in this region. This study provides only a 'snapshot' of absenteeism problems in the region and, due to time and resource limitations, focused on principals and policies rather than parents or students. However, it provides a valuable base for extending the focus to cover other stakeholders in order to develop a more holistic approach to these issues in the future.


This paper reports a study of a regional school district conducted under the auspices of Education Queensland through the Youth Interagency Support Team (YIST) (Marsh & Stehlik, 1998). The study was commissioned as a result of concern identified by YIST of an increase in unauthorised absences within both primary and high schools. YIST believed that this increased growth of unauthorised absences could be seen as a breakdown between the school and the family. Concern about potential for disruption within the community by students not at school was also an issue. While there were no 'best practice' models identified, nevertheless anecdotal evidence suggested that some schools were handling the issue with more success than others.

Following a brief literature review, this paper sets the national context, drawing on literature that focuses on the relationship between the student and the school, and where truancy/absenteeism acts to disrupt this relationship. This is followed by a brief description of the region in which the study was undertaken. The methodology for the study is then briefly outlined, followed by a discussion of the findings, particularly focusing on the relationship between the school and parents. The important finding of the study - that the key issue for schools was parent-approved absences, rather than truancy per se - is then discussed.

EDUCATION AND DISADVANTAGE

In Australian society, education remains highly valued as the key method of attaining a successful life chance. Giddens (1990) argues that even though education has promised to reduce disparities of wealth and power by providing young people from a wide range of backgrounds with skills that will enable them to fit more easily into society, it tends on the contrary to reinforce existing inequalities rather than acting to change them. Rizvi (1993) suggests that 'poverty is not only a problem for individuals, it is also an educational issue about how relations of social distribution are arranged and how curriculum and pedagogy serve some groups better than others' (p. 45). While a line between poverty and education is clearly important, it appears trapped within a deficit theory that suggests that children who are poor lack some essential condition necessary for educational success.

Legislation in Queensland identifies 15 years as the age at which a child can legally leave school. However, retention at school has been a major policy initiative from all levels of government over the past twenty years. Recently these have been strategically tied to the need to reduce unemployment levels and to create the so-called Clever Country (Bigum, Fitzclarence & Green, 1994). However, Coventry (1988) points out that 'increasing retention rates, either by legislation or persuasion', cannot in themselves 'provide a better educational experience for students' (p. 90). Bigum et al. (1984) suggest that the 'ever-increasing emphasis on linking education to employment has had an intense impact on students and their relationships to their schools' (p. 34).

Concomitantly, current social security legislative changes are ensuring that this 'gap' between school and work is becoming more and more 'managed'. From July 1998, for example, the Federal Government changes to the Youth Training Allowance ensured that only those young people who were studying or training full time were eligible to apply for this allowance. Coventry (1988) suggests that such legislative changes are of little or no effect in achieving their purpose of keeping students at school when they do not wish to be there. He writes:

... truancy provides an escape from alienating school experiences or a sense of hopelessness about the schools' contribution to improving employment prospects for many young people. Neither the threat of unemployment nor the incentive of educational qualifications is a sufficient condition to combat the disillusionment and indifference to contemporary patterns of schooling as evidenced by rates of truancy, particular in areas of widespread unemployment. (p. 90)
In 1959, Sleeman identified what he termed the 'alienated pupil' as one who 'can do little to influence his [sic] position at school and can see little relevance in his school work to his life after school' (cited in Tame, 1983, p. 24). In her summary of the literature, Tame writes that many researchers suggest that this sense of alienation is embedded in a reaction to the bureaucratisation at school experienced not only by the students but also by their teachers and their parents. In summary, strict delineation of roles limits the development of self-concept and self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness over school experiences that reduce students' sense of responsibility towards school and their inclination to take part in school activities. In addition, a lack of rapport with teachers and others 'results from involvement with too many people on too impersonal a level' (Tame, 1983, p. 24).

SCHOOLING, TRUANCY AND REGIONAL DIFFERENCE

In line with United Nations Conventions, Australia has committed itself to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990 and thereby agreed to recognise the 'right of the child to education' (Fitzgibbon, 1996, p. 1). A major report commissioned by the Federal Department of Employment, Education and Training in 1996, Truancy and Exclusion from School (Fitzgibbon, 1996), identified that students from 'low socio-economic backgrounds and from rural and remote communities [were] trailing their higher socio-economic background, urban peers [in retention rates]' (p. 2). In other words, the report suggested that absenteeism and exclusion were regionally defined, remained class based, and have equity implications for those students who do not have access to urban-based mainstream education.

These indi viduals - the report could not measure them, but accepted that they existed in large and disturbing numbers - bore the brunt of the social and economic cost. They had every possibility of 'not achieving transition to responsible adulthood and citizenship' (Fitzgibbon, 1996, p. 3). The report suggested this could be measured by the numbers who (potentially) become long-term unemployed, homeless, caught in a poverty trap, dependent on welfare and caught in the juvenile justice system. Citing 1994 statistics provided by Education Queensland, the report identified the following figures: between 200 and 1000 suspensions per month; 872 students suspended with a recommendation for exclusion; 40 per cent of these students were under the age of 15 years; 50 per cent of these recommendations resulted in actual exclusion; 13 per cent of those excluded were primary school students.

The region in which the present study was conducted has urban, regional and rural characteristics. The emerging pattern of regional Australia is one of disadvantage - of lack of access to services and lifestyle choices as well as climatic vagaries. One of the reasons for this is the impact of global restructuring where there has been a movement from small-scale to large-scale production as regional communities, often dependent on agricultural production, attempt to come to terms with falling market prices and reductions in government subsidies. Some evidence of these tensions of disadvantage (Thornthwaite, Kingston & Walsh, 1995) for the youth of this region, have been observed in increased absenteeism from school and active truancy. This appears to result in limited school participation, suspension and exclusion and it has been argued that this begins a tentative cycle of rebellion against authority which may, in the long term, emerge as that individual potentially becoming part of the juvenile justice environment.

The Youth Interagency Support Team (YIST) was established in 1994 as a multi-disciplinary response to the perceived needs of young people in the particular regional area in which the study took place. One area which was identified as requiring more research was the high incidence of unauthorised absences within schools in the district. In this region, as in other centres around Australia, inequality is becoming more commonplace. The gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' is widening, and the school in this changing environment can become pivotal in a resistance response to the consequences of poverty. While an adequate income is essential for achieving an acceptable standard of living, poverty in Australia should be viewed from a wider perspective as inseparable from the inequalities firmly entrenched in our social structure. Poverty is a key issue in this particular region, and, more specifically, in regional cities. A report on poverty to the Queensland Council of Social Services (Thornthwaite, Kingston & Walsh, (1995) stated in part that:

Schools can play a vital role in responding to poverty and developing programs to improve the opportunities among affected children. Most schools throughout [Queensland] will have some degree of poverty among their student population, and it is important that schools are more aware of poverty, and have programs in place which are able to address it. (p. 84)
A more recent report (QCOSS, 1998) on the Emergency Relief program in Queensland again identified schooling and 'back to school expenses' as an important component of the need for some families to seek emergency relief. The present survey, conducted in February 1998, identified 18 per cent of respondents who cited 'back to school expenses' as a major burden at a time of year when there were many bills associated with Christmas. QCOSS (1998) suggests that this as a 'well-known and recurring issue for welfare agencies throughout Queensland' and one which is increasing rather than decreasing (p. 5).

METHODOLOGY

The methodology for this study included: a literature and policy review and analysis; interviews with YIST members and selected principals; and a survey of all schools in the particular school district. The survey questionnaire was sent to all schools in the region. Of the 170 schools identified, 108 responded giving a 63.5 per cent response overall.

Due to time and resource limits, this study focussed on school leaders and specialists rather than parents or students. The respondents consisted of 100 principals, six deputy principals and one youth worker and one guidance officer. There were 67 male respondents and 41 females respondents. One respondent was identified as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. All respondents identified English as their first language. Some respondents had extensive experience within education, with many having worked in their school for more than five years (one person for 34 years). However, a number of the respondents had been at the school in their current role for less than one year, and some less than six months.

FINDINGS

Schools varied in size with the largest having 1 485 students and 88 staff and the smallest having 18 students and one teacher. The survey asked a broad question of the respondents concerning their 'primary reasons' for students being absent. From the responses, the following factors can be identified: family problems; socio-economic issues; individual problems; curriculum/school issues.

Family problems, for example, the need for the child to care for a parent, were mentioned most often. Socio-economic reasons included lack of money and the consequent need for children to undertake employment options, sometimes to assist those parents with their own work needs, for example, mustering or other on-farm responsibilities. Individual problems covered parents' own attitudes to school, for example, lack of appreciation of the need for schooling, resulting in their children absenting themselves from school. Curriculum/school issues included bullying, difficulty with peers, teacher/pupil clashes and difficulty with school work.

Most of the respondents were of the opinion that responsibility for truanting behaviour lies with parents. Family groups that are more 'at risk' than others were identified as: low socio-economic groups; highly mobile families; single parent families; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

In the respondent schools, the number of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, Australian South Sea Islander families, and Non-English Speaking Background families varied from very few to the total school population. The numbers of Australian South Sea Islander students and Non-English Speaking Background students were small in comparison with the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who totalled 1 924.

The prevalence of parent-condoned absenteeism is of concern. However, there is an absence of formal programs within many schools to deal with truancy and absenteeism. Respondents felt that, to be effective, absentee programs need to be a formal part of all school governance and focus on parent education in the value of schooling. The development of better relations between the school and the family by instilling a stronger feeling of school community among all participants should also be given high priority.

Of particular interest were the strategies adopted by schools to deal with unauthorised absences. In the majority of cases, the school made some form of contact with the parents, either by telephone or by written message. In a number of cases, contact was made with the police. In the majority of cases, the person making this contact within the school was the principal.

The length of time an unauthorised absence was allowed to continue before contact was made with the parents was typically three days or less, though in a few cases it was over one week and in a very few cases as long as two or three weeks. Some respondents advised that they were seeking patterns of behaviour before they would act; in other words, they would not assume that a day's leave was n ecessarily truant behaviour. Others advised that they 'immediately' contacted parents, sometimes after one day's absence. There appears to be no correlation between the size of the school and the immediacy or otherwise of the contact. In other words, the reason for the delay appeared to be dependent on internal school policies rather than work pressures.

Many of the schools identified programs within the school that they believed responded to the problem of unauthorised absences. These ranged from a 'buddy system' to formal authorised social workers. In some cases, respondents identified behaviour management processes as being relevant. In other cases, literacy and numeracy programs within the school were cited as responses to absenteeism. However, there was a number of cases (51) where either the school had no program or the question was not answered. In some of these cases the respondents thought that there was no truancy problem within the school although others thought there was. For example, one school with over 620 students, a 10 per cent turnover rate, a 13 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population and an identified core of unauthorised absences advised that it did not have any structured program within the school to address the issue.

External agencies providing programs used by schools included Police (used in 8 schools), Careforce (5 schools); Psychologists (3 schools), the local Youth Centre (2 schools) and the Department of Families, Youth and Community Care (2 schools). Also noted were Guidance Officers, Juvenile Aid Bureau, Aboriginal Liaison Officers and Police Liaison Officers. However, most schools (59) made no use of external agencies.

Most schools also had no parent program and did not encourage parent participation. Reasons given included: parents not interested; cases usually resolved; support group planned; no cases; and 'not needed' or 'only a small number'. Where parent programs were offered, Guidance Officers or Psychologists typically arranged such opportunities; in one case a Youth Worker had done so. One respondent thought parent programs were a 'good idea' but the school did not have one.

Concerning the home-visitation programs for at-risk students, responses were primarily in the negative, with one respondent saying that it was 'legally dangerous'. In the small number of cases where such visits did occur, they were undertaken by a Liaison Officer, a Welfare Officer, a Chaplain, a Youth Worker, a Psychologist, the Police, the Department of Family Services or a Guidance Officer. In no case did the teachers, the principal or deputy principal visit students' homes.

When all school processes are exhausted what next? Decisions on which agency to approach were again at the discretion of individual principals. Here, most respondents again advised that they would contact the agencies available to them. The most common responses were Police (60 schools), Psychologist (32 schools), Family Services (22 schools) and Guidance Officer (10 schools). In one case, Careforce was mentioned. Some respondents did not advise of any further point of contact when the school process was exhausted. In some cases, this would be because they had already stated that there was no absenteeism or truancy problem in the school.

Finally, in relation to the issue of professional development, it was surprising to find almost all respondents (103 of 108) replied that they 'had not received any in-service or other training which focuses on absenteeism and/or truancy'. Of the five who did respond positively, most did so because they had some post-graduate qualification, while one identified attendance at a behaviour management workshop and another identified training in suspension and exclusion policy.

CONCLUSION

There is an urgent need of further research to enable a deeper understanding of the issues which were identified during this small, localised survey. Fitzgibbon (1996) revealed that micro-level data are not available and that the formulation of most policy still rests on anecdotal information. In addition, as most sanctions are developed for 'chronic' truants, those individuals who have fractional absences, or who are at-risk because of poor relationships at school or because of family circumstances, particularly poverty, need alternative intervention strategies. In particular, the complex relationship between socio-economic status, poverty and parent-approved absences needs more detailed research in order to develop future intervention strategies.

REFERENCES

Bigum, C., Fitzclarence, L. & Green, B. (1994). Teaching the lost generation? Media culture, (un)employment and middle schooling. Unicorn, 20(2), 28-35.

Coventry, G. (1988) Perspectives on truancy considered: From victim blaming to an educational crisis. In R. Slee (Ed.), Discipline in schools: A curriculum perspective (pp. 81-108). Melbourne: Macmillan.

Fitzgibbon, E. (1996). Truancy and exclusion from school: Report of the inquiry into truancy and exclusion of children and young people from school. Canberra: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Giddens, A. (1990). Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press. Marsh, P. & Stehlik, D. (1998). Issues and behaviours which lead to truancy and absenteeism of students in the Rockhampton District: A scoping study. Rockhampton: Centre for Social Science Research, Central Queensland University and Youth Interagency Support Team, Education Queensland.

Rizvi, F. (1993). Broadbanding equity in Australian schools. In I. Macpherson (Ed.), Curriculum in profile: Quality or inequality (pp. 39-45). Conference Report, Curriculum 93. Belconnen, ACT: Australian Curriculum Studies Association.

Queensland Council of Social Services (QCOSS). (1998). Queensland battlers: Losing the battle (The QCOSS Emergency Relief Survey). Brisbane: QCOSS.

Tame, M. (1983). Alienation and truancy. Education, 32(2), 24-26.

Thornthwaite, T., Kingston, C. & Walsh, P. (1995). Drawing the line on poverty. An assessment of poverty and disadvantage in Queensland. Brisbane: Queensland Council of Social Service.

Author details: Philip F. Marsh
Centre for Social Science Research
Central Queensland University
Rockhampton Qld 4702

Please cite as: Marsh, P. F. (2000). Truancy or absenteeism? A school governance perspective. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 16(2), 147-157. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer16/marsh.html


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Created 27 Dec 2004. Last revision: 27 Dec 2004.
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