11 April, 2008

Truancy ... the continuing saga

Along with many others, I watched the ABC last night and saw this really great documentary on youth homelessness! “‘The Oasis: Australia's Homeless Youth’ with Tony Jones is a two-years-in-the-making raw observational documentary about the daily chaos and drama of a group of homeless kids at Oasis youth refuge”. I highly recommend it, though I warn you, it is quite grueling at times. There were many stories that broke my heart and behaviours that frustrated me beyond capacity, but what I was left with was an assurance that life is tough for many people, and that it is our obligation to be there right along side them, no matter the cost to ourselves.

Now I need to finish up the thoughts from last week but acknowledge that our thoughts will be well and truly in homelessness. However the two issues, in my opinion, connect very strongly.

Having established the causes and ramifications of truancy in last week’s blog, we are now at solutions to the truancy issue. How did you go thinking up your own? The following were some policies instituted by the UK government in an attempt to turn the situation around:

· In December 1998, police were given the power to begin ‘truancy sweeps’ which enable them to pick up truants from the street and take them to school. This has led to significant reductions in crime. York reported a reduction in youth crime by 67% and Newham reported a 70% reduction in car crime. In Westminster truancy sweeps have significantly increased attendance rates within schools. (SEU,2001:61)
· ‘Parenting orders and fines’ have been introduced to parents who condone truancy. A maximum fine of £2,500 per parent and/or imprisonment of up to three months are punishments for those found guilty of aggravated truancy. (SEU,2001:61)
· ‘Truancy Buster’ awards of £10,000 can be awarded to schools that are able to decrease truancy in challenging circumstances. Practices used to reduce truancy were catering for students emotional and behavioural difficulties, and forging stronger relationships with parents including parent information nights that include prizes, free food and transport. (SEU,2001:62)
· Introducing programs and supports within schools has a truancy prevention focus. Initiatives such as Learning Support Units to deal with children’s literacy and numeracy problems, Learning Mentors, Connexions, the Children’s Fund and curriculum flexibility have all contributed.
The Social Exclusion Unit’s research found that one key success was to contact the parent immediately and advise them of their child’s non-attendance (Tasmanian Govt, 2005:3). Extra-curricular initiatives such as breakfast clubs, after school clubs study support and vocational training were also seen to have a positive effect on preventing and reducing truancy (Tasmanian Govt, 2005:3).

There are positives and negatives to this policy response in relation to addressing social exclusion. The results show that rewards, punishments and the physical removal of children off the streets has increased attendance and reduced crime. This in essence is a good thing. Participation increases the likelihood of passing school and the absence of a criminal record will reduce the chance of exclusion from employment or housing later in life. However if the major cause of truancy is a poor family environment, poverty, behavioural issues etc, does forced increased participation through a truancy sweep improve the child’s situation, or in fact address the cause of truancy? Increased participation will only decrease the urgency to create measures that truly address social exclusion.

Perhaps the biggest concern in relation to social exclusion is the complete absence of programs for children who are disengaged from education. School is compulsory by law until the student is 16 years and therefore no out of school programs, alternative schools etc are funded. The options for welfare workers and principals are very limited when presented with severe truancy issues. There is simply no other alternative than continuing to push them into school; a place that will likely be unable to meet the students needs as they are often too far behind or behaviourally uncontrollable in the class room setting. There are numerous positive and effective pathways open to a student once they turn 15, however this is often far too late to begin intervention.

From my own experience, creating alternative pathways outside of the mainstream school system can be very beneficial for students. The Reservoir Corps began ‘School Connect’ as a pilot program aimed to explore possible solutions to the truancy issue. The program offers one:one lessons by a qualified teacher with students referred from the high school due to extreme truancy. Initially the teacher works with the student in their home with their parent present. Once the student feels comfortable leaving home, the schooling is moved to Shop 16, a student resource centre. The sessions are one hour every day and includes tutoring, development of social skills and recreation time. The aim is to equip the student with enough educational skills that will enable them to reengage with either mainstream or alternative schooling, TAFE or employment. However the curriculum is kept flexible, attainable and interesting so as to keep the student engaged, a problem that often makes regular school attendance and achievement problematic. A secondary aim is also to provide a mentor for both the student and parent to address any family issues present. The program requires a fair amount of time and resources, but the success rate is incredibly high. A proper cost benefit analysis would most likely show that the investment in prevention would be well worth the input of resources.

That is probably enough on this issue for now, but if you would like some more Australia specific and commissioned research, please check out the Youth Homelessness report released this week as it has a section on preventative measures. This includes proposed and current government responses within the education system. For the full chapter, see http://www.abc.net.au/tv/oasis/pdfs/Homeless_ch13.pdf

Have a great week, and place our heroes Captains Paul and Robbin Moulds in your prayers.

Genevieve

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