Sunday, July 07, 2002

Link between poverty and truancy

Children are more likely to skip school if they come from poor families, a study suggests.

Research carried out at Cambridge University found a close link between poverty and truancy among primary school children.

Researcher Ming Zhang says much effort is put into tackling absenteeism among teenagers - but by then it is too late because bad habits have already set in.

The study, carried out at Magdalene College and School of Education, examined statistics on truancy from London boroughs between 1997 and 2000.

It also involved interviews with 90 council education welfare officers and 98 parents on low incomes.

Ming Zhang says the parents who were questioned said they sometimes forgot about their younger children's schooling when they hit money trouble.

"For many people this may be a bizarre excuse for primary school children not to attend school," he said.

"Yet for the families facing financial difficulties, the problem is real."

Mr Zhang, who is the principal education welfare officer in Kingston, believes once children reach secondary schools, other factors, like peer pressure, become more significant in leading children to truant.

'Irresponsible parents'

The study also looked at attitudes to truancy among council officials and parents.

Both agreed that "irresponsible parents" were to blame for truancy and did not link poverty to children missing school.

Nearly half (47%) of council welfare officers canvassed said irresponsible parents were to blame.

Among parents, 44% thought the same.

Among welfare officers questioned for the study, nearly four out of five (78%) said that truancy rates would not be cut by prosecuting parents of truants.

None thought prosecution was the best way to improve attendance.

But parents themselves were slightly more likely to think prosecutions could improve attendance, 10% said this was the best way to improve attendance.

According to the officials questioned, an improvement in parenting skills would do most to curb truancy.

Local councils sometimes go to court to get an order obliging parents to take parenting classes, when other attempts to get children into school fail.

For parents, the most important factors in tackling truancy were professional support for parents and improved parenting skills.

Ming Zhang believes the best way to tackle truancy is to offer low income families welfare support in terms of benefits, job opportunities and access to leisure.

"We need to tackle the problem early," he says.

"Once the problems of truancy become entrenched, other problems come along and they can be harder to deal with."