Out of school and at risk


IT'S Thursday morning. Just after 10.00 a.m. Not a school closed in the county. The Bus Eireann coach to Dublin pulls onto the hard shoulder. Outside two boys wearing bomber jackets and shielding their faces with baseball caps exude awkward self consciousness.

One of them risks a glance at the passengers inside. Our heroes embark, pay the driver. No questions asked. They scan the faces of the old age pensioners as they decide where to sit. They're both about 13 years of age.

Streetwise smiles, seems relieved. Redhead relaxes too, shaking off a guilty glance at the bespectacled teacher like passenger studying them.

No doubt their parents were confident they were at school that day. Next day if they went in next day they would bring a forged note or get their elder sister to write one. They might even get away without the note: "I forgot sir", "I gave it to Miss So and So". "Me mammy rang the secretary".

With the best will in the world, conscientious teachers in overcrowded classes cannot check every single missing or questionable note. In some schools, were teachers to do so, they'd get very little teaching done. Pupils know the system. They'll pick their moment cunningly. Some youngsters certainly get away with it.

Eamonn Fitzgerald, principal of the 470 pupil boys' and girls' Killarney Community College, Co Kerry says: "Parents presume when they leave home they're in school. Often they know nothing until we phone

He adds that no matter what checks and balances operate, there's no cast iron way to prevent truancy.

Brian McAuley, principal of St Columba's College at Stranorlar in Co Donegal, a co educational school with 1,100 pupils, says: "Ninety per cent of truants are found out. We call in the parents and suspend the offender for three days."

That, of course, leaves 10 per cent of truants who get away with it. It also administers a possibly welcome punishment to the offender. McAuley says that a "huge panoply of work is put into detecting truancy as it's a major cause of failure".

Truanting even takes place in the primary sector. Noreen Abbott, principal of St Dominic's National School in Tallaght, Co Dublin, says that although it's rare at her school, "about four pupils per year" tend to truant.

"You don't know what the dangers may be. There's a river near us. They could slip down the banks. The security staff at The Square shopping centre are very good. They spot them right away.

At many schools, a post holder with responsibility for attendance watches pupils' patterns of absence. But it may take weeks or even months before a pattern begins to emerge, by which time a pupil can already have missed several days of school over an extended period.

CATHAL FLYNN, Chief School Attendance Officer with Dublin Corporation, has overall responsibility for detecting irregular attenders and non attenders at schools within the Corporation's jurisdiction.

The number of truants wandering Dublin's streets varies from day to day and from month to month. Approximately 92 per cent of pupils who ought to attend school do attend on any given day. Six per cent of non attenders have a valid reason for being absent. Fewer than two per cent, namely 350 to 450 pupils in the Dublin Corporation area, have no legitimate excuse.

"Mitching", "on the hop" and "playing truant" fail to convey the threats that can confront these shirkers of science practicals, double maths or nasty French exams.

According to Cathal Flynn, truants are totally at risk: "They can get into trouble with car stealing and the drugs culture. They know where to get a fix for a fiver. Despite sex education, many conceive unwanted pregnancies and, especially in urbanised areas, truants can get involved in prostitution."

Also, just because a pupil is present at school in the morning does not mean that he or she will stay there for the allotted school day.

Jean Geoghegan, principal of Christ the King Secondary School in Cork, explains that at junior cycle over 70 per cent of class time is spent with the same students so, it's easy to see if someone has left school early.

It's easier to mitch at senior cycle. Pupils disperse to different class groups throughout the day depending on their subject options and if they're taking honours or pass.

She explains that teachers of these pupils keep a particularly close eye on attendance. By 10 a.m. morning attendance is logged on computer and absences from the senior cycle are posted in the staffroom.

Geoghegan is conscious that maintaining attendance is a pastoral concern. "Non attendance is a key factor of performance. Taking time off school is a symptom. It alerts us there's something up."

However she admits that no school mechanisms for detecting truancy - not even state of the art computer systems are foolproof: "We're vigilant but we can't intercept every incident. Short of ringing up the school and checking, parents can't be sure. Vigilance is needed by parents too."