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Education is the ticket to improved life chances and principal route out of intergenerational poverty. Yet there is a substantial body of oft-cited evidence that children from poor households are unlikely to fulfil their potential at school. Regular absence from school is a key driver in this tragic cycle preventing a fair start for all children.

Once a child reaches ‘legal 5’ (the educational jargon for fifth birthday) they are legally required to go to school. Attendance is monitored daily and those who slip below 85% are categorised as ‘persistently absent’ (or PA). At that point interventions are made, initially by the school. Recognising the importance of attendance Michael Gove last year increased the measure from the 80% standard set by the Blair government.

For many the word truancy triggers memories of Ferris Bueller ‘bunking off’ for the day and a few days beneath the covers of our own. But persistent absenteeism is much more complicated and has long-term implications. From an educational point of view the reason for monitoring attendance is obvious; there is a direct correlation between poor attendance and poor attainment at GCSE level. But from a wider societal perspective there are many other reasons to worry about school attendance.

Those young people who are persistently absent from school are four times more likely to receive a fixed term exclusion and a staggering twenty-six times more likely to be permanently excluded. A third of young people who were PA during the last year at school are not in education, employment or training at the age of 18, four times as many as their peers.

Once exclusion happens, it gets worse: in a study by HM Prisons Inspectorate and the Youth Justice Board more than 70% of 15-18 year olds in custody had truanted from school. Today some 40% percent of newly sentenced prisoners were permanently excluded and 46% left school with no qualifications.

It is a problem of significant scale. During the 2010-11 academic year nearly one in sixteen school-age young people in the UK missed more than 15% of their schooling (400,000); that’s almost a day a week. Many miss much more.

Of the children who are persistently absent, 40% qualify for Free School Meals (household income of less than £16,000). If you are poor and persistently absent from school, you are three times more likely to come from a household where none of the principal adults are in work. Analysis of School-Home Support’s intervention data for the academic year 2011-12 shows that children who qualify for Free School Meals are:

* Five times more likely to live in a house where domestic violence occurs.
* Seven times more likely to have drug or alcohol abuse problems.
* 27% likely to need support for mental health issues.
* 46% likely to have problems with family relationships.
* 22% likely to have protection/safeguarding issues.

Yes, poverty is deeper than just money. But money matters – so leaving the problem to teachers to deal with exclusively is not a sufficient intervention. Schools must use their Pupil Premium allocation to intervene with the issues underlying poor attendance if we are to stop this waste of young lives being repeated generation after generation.

Preventing the continuing cycle of poor attendance at school; leading to poor attainment, poor job prospects, a poor adulthood and poor parenting is something that we can do and must all aspire to make happen. As well as being much more cost effective for the taxpayer, it is also just straightforwardly more humane to catch people before they fall over the cliff edge into the ‘troubled families’ category. And it saves a lot of collateral damage to society along the way.

Jan Tallis is the Chief Executive of School-Home Support.

Follow Jan on Twitter: @jantallis


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