Skiving school: why are Fife’s truancy rates getting worse, why do pupils skip school?

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School attendance figures are still stagnating in Fife, and councillors, school leaders, and union representatives are all looking into the changing face of truancy.

Truants are no longer troublemakers skipping out on class for the fun of it, according to Graeme Keir, the EIS Fife spokesperson. These days, they tend to be kids with mental health issues, anxiety, and additional support needs.

“These kids are the canaries in the cage,” he said. “The character of these kids should really be telling school leaders something about the issues at school - s issues about support, class sizes, and about safety and mental health.”

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Mr Keir’s comments came after Fife Council’s education scrutiny committee councillors discussed the latest school attendance figures last week.

The reasons why pupils skip school are more complex than ever (Pic: TSPL)The reasons why pupils skip school are more complex than ever (Pic: TSPL)
The reasons why pupils skip school are more complex than ever (Pic: TSPL)

Prior to the pandemic, Fife reported 94% attendance rates for primaries and 90% for secondary schools.

But now, the region’s primaries are down to 92% attendance, while secondary schools are lower at 86%. Those figures are about one percentage point below the national average - and although Fife has pulled its primary attendance figures up from 91% in 2022/23, its secondary figures are one per cent worse.

Why are pupils increasingly absent?

Attendance issues are “complex and wide ranging”, according to the scrutiny committee report from Maria Lloyd, head of education services.

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It’s a “multi faceted local, national and international issue” that predates the Covid-19 pandemic. Nationally, there has been a decline in school attendance since around 2014.

From an EIS perspective, Mr Keir said the decline in attendance coincides with school funding cuts, increasing class sizes, a rising number of children with additional support needs, and longer wait times for mental health care.

“Classes are too big, there are not enough resources to meet student needs in a lot of cases, we have more and more kids who have additional support needs, and it’s impossible to meet those needs with the resources we have,” he said.

“I think the violence and aggression that are increasing in schools are experienced by kids as well and they’re traumatised by it. In a lot of cases they don’t want to go to school.”

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He continued: “There are big changes in society as well. There is a lot more poverty, there are a lot fewer social workers and family workers, and waiting times to get any kind of mental health support for children or families is a national scandal.”

As to why figures are worse in Fife than elsewhere, Mr Keir pointed to poverty levels and to class sizes.

“Fife has the third highest level of poverty of any local authority in Scotland and we know it is linked to a lack of attendance in school,” he said. “We also have these super sized schools which are very impersonal and are very difficult for anybody to survive in and thrive in.”

Fife Council knows that poverty and deprivation are big issues, and there’s an ever widening gap in attendance between the most and least deprived kids in Scotland.

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According to Ms Lloyd’s report, truancy rates are almost 6% higher for Scotland’s most impoverished children than for its least deprived. In Fife, the attendance gap is up to 7.5%.

Councillor Altany Craik (Labour for Glenrothes West and Kinglassie) emphasised that deprivation and poverty are factors that can’t be ignored.

“We need to focus our spending and our efforts on changing the poverty problem. We need to focus on people who are left behind, whose families are chaotic and have difficulties impacting their learning and attendance” he said.

The council has commissioned research into identifying the root causes of school absence, and its impact on young people and families. It's due to be completed next February. In the meantime, there is a centrally funded family work team that helps school support workers address the barriers to attendance. Similarly there is a multi-agency group working to get kids back to school.

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The council is also tracking and monitoring data, and running an "attend to the end" campaign, refreshing school attendance policies, and piloting a virtual learning programme at Glenrothes High School for those students too anxious to attend in person.

“There’s no silver bullet - we know that. There are many contributing factors and many conflicting factors,” Cllr Craik acknowledged.

“How do we break that cycle? How do we give our schools the right tools to get people back into schools? There are things we need to find out that are working elsewhere that are having marginal impacts - a percent here a percent there. And all of a sudden you’ll find your attendance is moving forward."

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