Truancy

Introduction

10.49 There is no uniform, aggregated data on the extent of school truancy.[84] Evidence received from young people during focus groups suggests that some students are absent from school more often than they attend.[85] Reasons for truancy include boredom at school, embarrassment and frustration at poor performance, fear of bullying or harassment,[86] drug dependency,[87] family stress or conflict, homelessness and defiance of authority.[88]

10.50 Some students truant a few times during their school career in response to peer pressure or to see what they can get away with. Provided there are no other major problems these students can generally be dealt with effectively by their families and/or schools on a case by case basis. Other children are chronically absent from school.[89] Their situation requires a co-ordinated government response to truancy.

Truancy is the result of multiple negative and cumulative influences originating from the individual, the family, the school and the community and is therefore a broad social issue which needs to be addressed by comprehensive social policies.[90]

10.51 Young people in care and Indigenous children are particularly at risk of truancy and subsequently dropping out of the school system altogether.[91] School retention rates are significantly lower for Indigenous children than non-Indigenous students.[92]

Link between truancy and offending

10.52 Repeated truancy is a common ground for suspension or expulsion. Truanting or being excluded from school substantially increases the risk of young people becoming enmeshed in the juvenile justice system.[93] A survey of 461 young people in detention in South Australia found that 73% truanted regularly when attending school and that 79% had been suspended or expelled from school.[94] Only 21% were attending an educational institution at the time they were placed in detention. 80% of the detainees were under 16 when they left school.[95]

Dropping out of school is a very strong predictor of delinquency and reduced adult employment prospects.[96]

Truancy is a stepping stone to delinquency and criminal activity. A report compiled by the Los Angeles County Office of Education on factors contributing to juvenile delinquency concluded that chronic absenteeism is the most powerful predictor of delinquent behaviour.[97]

10.53 Truancy can compound the problems of children who are already behind in class as a result of behavioural, emotional or learning difficulties. They fall further and further behind thus jeopardising their chance of achieving formal qualifications and seriously reducing their employment opportunities.[98]

In Australian society, poverty is generally related to unemployment and subsequent reliance on welfare. The relationship between educational achievement and employment status has been well documented. People with a lower level of educational achievement are more likely to be unemployed than those with a higher level of attainment.[99]

Reducing truancy

10.54 Some jurisdictions have introduced legal mechanisms aimed at reducing truancy. For example, in a number of States police have the power to stop and question school-aged children who should apparently be at school and, if necessary, escort them to school or home.[100]

10.55 The Western Australian Government recently released a School Education Bill for public consultation. The Bill allows for the imposition of a fine on parents who do not ensure that their children attend school.[101] Under the proposal the student can also be fined $100 for non-attendance.[102] Certain steps must be followed before a prosecution under these provisions can be commenced.[103] School Attendance Panels may be established to consider matters related to absenteeism and to facilitate the return of children to normal attendance.[104] The proposed legislation will also allow for the appointment of school attendance officers who will be empowered to stop and detain absentee students and escort them to school or home.[105]

10.56 The proposed WA provisions have attracted considerable media attention.[106] They may well be a counter-productive approach to truancy. Students who are chronically truant are often from poorer families experiencing the second or third generation of unemployment. Fining them is unrealistic. It imposes an additional financial burden on the family.[107] It would be better to address the causes of truancy through early intervention and family support programs such as those discussed in paragraphs 10.27-34.[108] In addition, research suggests that punishing parents for the acts of their children does not decrease delinquency.[109] It would also be better to stress the positive by having schools convince students and their families of the benefits that can flow from secondary qualifications. Given the clear link between truancy and juvenile offending, the Inquiry considers that there should be a national strategy to reduce truancy. The strategy should provide best practice principles but be flexible enough to address idiosyncratic local concerns.

Recommendation 45 In light of the link between chronic truancy and exposure to the juvenile justice system, the federal Government should co-ordinate the development and implementation of a national strategy to reduce truancy.

Implementation. DEETYA should lead the development of the strategy in consultation with State and Territory education departments, peak groups from the independent schools sector, relevant community groups and the Australian Council for Education Research.

[84] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996, 3.

[85] eg Wagga Wagga Focus Group 9 May 1996.

[86] Confidential DRP Submission 8.

[87] Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform (ACT) DRP Submission 17.

[88] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996, 25.

[89] Chronic truants can be defined as children who are absent without reason for 20% or more of school time: id 8.

[90] id 25.

[91] id 47–53.

[92] See para 10.41. See also P Dwyer Opting Out: Early School Leavers and the Degeneration of Youth Policy National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies Hobart 1996, 17.

[93] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996, 41. See also National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families Bringing Them Home HREOC Sydney 1997, 552; para 10.62.

[94] Data provided to the Inquiry by Residential and Youth Services Section, SA Dept for Family and Community Services July 1997.

[95] See also para 4.37.

[96] J Bright Crime Prevention In America: A British Perspective Office of International Criminal Justice University of Illinois Chicago 1992, 40.

[97] E Garry 'Truancy: First step to a lifetime of problems' (1996) Juvenile Justice Bulletin — US Dept of Justice 1.

[98] See paras 10.22-25 regarding literacy.

[99] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996, 43.

[100] Education Reform Act 1990 (NSW) s 122; Education Act 1972 (SA) s 80; Education Act (NT) s 31; Child Welfare Act (WA) s 138B(1)(b).

[101] cl 35(2). Similar legislation exists in some overseas jurisdictions. eg in 1995 the US state of Oregon created legislative penalties for parents who fail to supervise children under 15 adequately: Oregon Revised Statutes 163.577. Irregular school attendance is prima facie evidence of failure to supervise: KA Kalvig 'Oregon's Parental Responsibility Acts' (1996) 75 Oregon Law Review 829, 832.

[102] cl 35(1). The Inquiry has been informally advised that this provision will be amended in light of comments received during the consultation period for the Bill.

[103] eg a School Attendance Panel (established under Sch 1) must have certified that all reasonable steps have been taken to secure attendance by the child: School Education Bill 1997 (WA) cl 36.

[104] Disabilities Advisory Panels will be established whenever a parent seeks a review of an enrolment decision concerning a child with a disability: School Education Bill 1997 (WA) cl 83.

[105] Div 5 Subdiv 3.

[106] eg K Ashworth 'Truants, parents face heavy fines' The West Australian 20 June 1997, 21.

[107] See KA Kalvig 'Oregon's Parental Responsibility Acts' (1996) 75 Oregon Law Review 829, 848.

[108] This approach is supported by House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996, 29.

[109] KA Kalvig 'Oregon's Parental Responsibility Acts' (1996) 75 Oregon Law Review 829, 842–43.