Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 126
18th August 2004
Truancy: A Personal Perspective
Sean Gabb

Most writing about truancy—indeed, all that I have read—is about people who play truant by people who have not. Inevitably, therefore, discussion of the issue lacks the degree of introspection that one requires in any discussion of—say—drug use, or membership of the Communist Party. My purpose in writing this article is to help supply that lack.

I have two main qualifications for writing. First, I played truant at school. In saying this, I do not mean that I occasionally failed to attend. I was a truant in the fullest sense—I was told once that I had the worst attendance record of anyone in my year. Second, I have been involved for over a decade now in some of the most comprehensive truancy surveys ever conducted in the English-speaking world. Directed by Dr Dennis O’Keeffe, who is currently the Professor of Sociology at the University of Buckingham, and conducted in both England and the United States, these have involved handing out questionnaires to tens of thousands of schoolchildren, and interviewing several hundred, and they have resulted in several books and in a report commissioned and published by the British Government.

Against these qualifications must be set the passing of time. It is now 30 years since I played truant. No one can be expected after so long a time to recall every detail. There is also the possible defect of what I have learnt from looking at the truancy of others. Am I likely to be imposing on my own experiences a scheme of explanation suggested by later research?

These are possibly serious defects—especially the second. What I am writing is only incidentally autobiographical. My main intention here is to contribute to the research on truancy, and it will be a useless exercise if I shall turn out to have recalled only those facts that tend to confirm a theory that must continue to rest wholly on other evidence.

However, while 30 years is a long time, I do have an excellent memory. Not only have I a clear recollection of events, but I am able to place them in chronological order and to place reasonably accurate dates on them. I have kept a diary of sorts since I was 15, and I have many diary entries made in my early 20s that contain much fresher recollections of my earlier life than I could supply from present memory. Also, I still have many of my old school exercise books and much marked homework, and a few of my old school reports. I am convinced that my own recollection of facts from my middle teens is at least as reliable, even today, as that of most people questioned in their late teens—and this in truancy research is considered a valid means of obtaining information. This being so, let me begin with the facts.

The Facts

I first played truant on the second Friday in September 1972. It was entirely by mistake. In my first year at secondary school, Friday afternoon had ended with a French lesson followed by Mathematics. In my second year, that afternoon ended with Mathematics followed by French. On this occasion, I forgot that a new timetable was in operation, remembering the new one as I got off the bus going home, when it struck me that I was the only schoolboy in sight.

From this beginning, I soon proceeded to deliberate truancy. By the spring term of 1973, I doubt if I was attending an entire week of lessons. During the next three years, I was a blanket truant - that is, I did not go in at all to school. I have a diary entry from 1974 in which I confess to not having been to school once in February, and only for one week in March. Since I thought it worth recording, this was an exceptional run of absences. I am trying to discover from the Southwark Education Authority if my attendance records have survived. I they have not, I am not able by myself to say exactly how often I failed to attend. Even so, I believe I was more often than not absent during these three years. My oldest friend was at school with me. He is unable to recall dates and frequency, but is able to confirm that I was hardly ever at school.

I was also a post-registration truant—that is, I would go in to school and register myself in the morning; then I would disappear for the rest of the day. Otherwise, I would absent myself from specific lessons.

I stopped playing truant in January 1976. At the end of the spring term, my Headmaster called me into his office and complimented me on a perfect attendance. For the rest of my time at school, my only absence was the rest of the week following the 11th October 1976, when I was knocked down and nearly killed by a drunken driver. Despite bruises that took weeks to stop aching and a set of gashes on my body that made dramatic or embarrassing stains on my shirt, I went back to school as soon as I had been fitted with a new pair of spectacles.

Explanations

These are the facts so far as I can recall them. I turn now to the possible explanations.

Opportunity

First, I was able to get away with playing truant. On that first occasion in September 1972, I arrived home worried that the school had telephoned ahead, and that I might have rely on the feeble but true reason of absence of mind. As it was, I had gone to the local library rather than directly home, and so arrived later than if I had gone from school at the proper time. I said nothing, and I soon realised that nothing had been said from school. The following Monday morning, I was similarly worried, and I passed the morning in a double Mathematics lesson waiting for a call to the Headmaster’s office. Again, nothing was said. My absence had not been noticed—or it had been ignored.

Certainly, it was noticed when I began to vanish for weeks on end. But a few lectures about my naughtiness aside, nothing was ever done to me. No one from the school ever thought to telephone my parents or to buy a postage stamp for any letter. Instead, I was used as the messenger between school and home, and it was easy enough to open letters given to me to deliver and to suppress anything that might be to my disadvantage. I made a point of delivering invitations to open evenings a day after the event, and grew rather good at censoring end of year reports.

Once in 1973, my Head of Year turned up at the front door to complain about my absence. However, on that day, my grandmother was the only adult in the house, and, bearing in mind what I had told her, she had so little regard for my school, that it was easy to ask her to suppress that message along with all the others.

However, though necessary, opportunity is not sufficient explanation. After all, I did sometimes go to school, even though I suspected my absences might be even less noticed if I never went at all—and I did eventually stop playing truant entirely, even though there was no improvement in my school’s administrative competence. So that administrative incompetence can be regarded as merely enabling behaviour that was prompted by other causes.

Bullying

I was bullied at my secondary school with moderate persistence. I was fat. I wore spectacles. I spoke with an accent half Kentish, half middle class. I was popular—when present—with the teachers. I came from a family that was at the time in straitened circumstances. Had it not been for this last, I doubt I should have been sent to that school. But I was there. My secondary school was a boys-only comprehensive in South East London, about a mile from Tower Bridge. Many of the other boys there were the sons of dock workers, and their current pursuits and general ambitions were generally physical. One boasted in class that he had no need of education. Once he was 16, he assured us, his father would have him sponsored to join the relevant union, and this would get him a job in the London Docks, where he could obtain a total rewards package that included impressive cash earnings, further cash and goods had from institutionalised pilfering, and much time off through industrial action. He would be doing better than the teachers, and was only marking time till the end of his compulsory education.

It would be hypocritical if I now lamented the closure before the end of that decade of the London Docks, and the strong probability that this boy is now at best one of the porters sitting in the entrance to one of the blocks of expensive, serviced flats that have replaced the docks, and at worst in a prison or a lunatic asylum—or just dead. 30 years ago, he and his friends hated and despised me. They held against me my appearance, my poverty, and my conservative politics. This penultimate defect was evident from my shabby appearance and my inability to join in the mutual admiration of the material goods the other boys brought in to school. The last defect became sharply apparent in January 1972 when the coal miners went on strike for higher wages, and their own industrial action and picketing of the power stations, and the sympathetic action by other unions, led to power cuts and a three day week. I think it was in February that my class was taken on a trip to a local museum. I cannot remember the museum, but we passed by a groups of picketers. The other boys in the class shouted slogans of solidarity. I sniffily denounced the strikers as Moscow-inspired wreckers. This prompted a very heated debate that continued in and out of class for several days. One of the teachers joined in against me, explaining that I was a "deferential Tory". I do not recall the phrase "false consciousness", but it was assumed by all that someone of my evident poverty had no business to be other than a radical socialist. It was most galling to have my circumstances dragged into an argument over political ideology.

The other boys mostly showed their dislike by mockery and exclusion from any activities in which they were able to choose who took part. Whenever sides had to be picked in games for a football match or some other sport, I was always the last one standing in the middle, and had to be assigned to one team or the other by the teacher; and my presence—admittedly useless—was resented. But there were also bursts of unexpected violence. It was never the armed, unlimited violence that has now become normal in such schools—I was never in danger of serious hurt. But it was upsetting to be hated, even if it was a good preparation for the rest of my life.

"Bullies are all cowards" my grandmother once insisted. "Hit one and the others will run away". I can say from experience that this is an untrue observation. I never went to extremes of retaliation, but I was a large youth, and could hit very hard if I tried. All I discovered was that the bullies I encountered were not cowards, and were only encouraged by resistance. They also had no sense of honour, and were not ashamed to help each other by coming at me from behind. Since the teachers were unable—though not always unwilling—to do anything on my behalf, I found that the best response was to avoid the bullies. Of course, the most effective means of avoidance was truancy.

This being said, bullying is not a sufficient cause of my truancy. I was bullied at school from my first arrival in London at the age of six. I well remember when I was nine how almost every boy in the class once surrounded me in the playground, and how I avoided worse than a black eye only because there was no room for anyone to do more than poke at me. I also had books stolen or defaced. But I did not then play truant.

Of course, I have said that I discovered that I could play truant only several years after this. But the bullying continued long after I had stopped playing truant. Indeed, for a while, it became almost dangerous at a time when my attendance was at its most reliable. In April 1977, I got into an argument with a Turkish boy over an umbrella. One of his friends had borrowed this from him and broken it while hitting me with it. The Turk was almost speechless with rage and expected me to buy a replacement. When I tried to explain the obvious difference between cause and instrument of his loss, he responded with his fists. "Don’t give me none of that poof talk" he yelled at me as he punched me in the face. Since I absolutely refused to hand over the £1.50 he demanded, he stalked me for the next few months with two very large and brutal friends. I was now in my upper sixth year, and my school had joined with a local girls’ school for the A Levels. I had the great indignity one day of having to rely on two black girl friends—I have always been popular with black women—for my preservation. My History teacher was absent from the class, when my three stalkers burst into the class room. "Come outside", the Turk snarled at me. The girls jeered at him, and one put her arms around me, suggesting he should deal with her brother if he laid hands on her. The teachers did nothing about any of this, and the ordeal only ended when its authors left school without qualifications. Again, I hope I shall not be thought uncharitable if I reflect on their probable lives since then.

However, none of this prevented me from going to school. Its only effect was to make me get up earlier, so I could be out of their reach inside the school buildings when the bullies arrived.

Curriculum and Teaching

So far as I can tell, my true reason for playing truant was the curriculum and teaching at my school. I found most lessons boring or frustrating. In particular, I hated Games and Mathematics. The first I hated because I have always disliked most physical activity. For me, football was nothing more than an opportunity for getting dirty and wet or cold. Athletics were an opportunity for picking up sprains and bruises.

I disliked Mathematics for other reasons. I told myself at the time that I had no aptitude for it. I later discovered that I did have at least a modest aptitude, and now able, tough not usually willing, to teach it at a rather basic level. Really, it was the teaching. For my first three years at secondary school, I was taught by an old man from one of the non-English West Indies. He had, I was told, once been a headmaster in his own country, and had been an admired teacher of Mathematics. By the time I met him, though, he was in his late sixties, and was at least past his best. Certainly, his false teeth and thick accent prevented me from understanding a word he said about mathematics or much else. He would scribble a demonstration on the blackboard while mumbling an explanation. This done, he would turn back to the class and ask in a tone that did not invite denial if we had followed him. I would look around the room, wondering if it was worth putting my hand up. I now realise that no one had followed him. At the time, I thought I was stupid. I responded by avoiding his lessons. Even when I bothered attending school, I used to make a point of keeping away from his lessons.

It was different with other subjects. I avoided History and English and the sciences because I thought the teachers were useless. More than ten years of teaching in various universities and schools have given me the professional authority to say that they were useless. Even at the time, I could see they were incompetent. One of my English teachers was illiterate. My oldest friend used to sit beside me and sneer at the spelling mistakes on the blackboard. None of my English teachers was inclined to teach even the elements of grammar and composition. I was once thrown out of my History class for arguing with the teacher about the chronology of the Trojan War. A Physics teacher once had me permanently excluded from his class for arguing about the speed of light. He said it was 399,000 miles per second. I insisted it was 186,000. He was Brazilian, and I now realise that he had confused miles with kilometres, but the English system was still then largely used in science teaching, and our argument, I clearly recall, was about miles. In any event, he was a useless teacher of the sciences. He believed in witchcraft and sympathetic magic, and once scandalised me by teaching this in a lesson about variable resistance.

Even then, I loved music, Sadly, I despised the Music teacher; and I cannot actually remember hearing the records of Berlioz that he played to us. I do remember a lesson he gave about microtonal internals, but this was neither preceded nor followed by anything that would have given it the context to be called teaching.

French was an ordeal. I had three years—rather, I should have had was I there—of copying down tables of irregular verbs from the blackboard. No one who even bothered attending could at the end of that time read a newspaper in French or order a meal in a French restaurant.

Another of my teachers—it would be kind not to specify the subject, as he may still be alive—had what I now realise was a drinking problem. When we paid him no attention, he would shout himself into a frenzy: we were all useless swine, and he would get his salary regardless of whether we paid attention, and so on and so forth. Then he would go into a large stationery cupboard in the classroom and shut the door, leaving us to ourselves for a few minutes. He would then come out in a better state of mind and continue with what passed for a lesson. At the time, we would make lewd comments about what he was up to in there. It now seems obvious what he was doing. I suppose I should have some sympathy for the man. It was a dreadful job to teach at that school. On the other hand, no one forced him to teach there. And I learnt nothing from him.

The End of Truancy

From the September of 1974, I found myself with generally better teachers. One of my English teachers was a published writer and was enthusiastic about the subject. Another was one of those rare people who can inspire his students with a will to learn. He eventually moved to a school in Cornwall, and we corresponded on and off until I graduated from university. My Mathematics teacher was an Armenian Marxist with a beard and boots spray-painted green. We used to argue in class about politics. In the intervals, he managed to persuade me that Mathematics was a useful subject that gave true knowledge about the physical world. History teaching continued rather poor, though there was a six week period during which a wonderful supply teacher took over. His preferred manner of instruction was to read long patches from original sources. I shall never forget his reading on the murder of Rasputin from the Memoirs of Prince Yussopov. Sadly, he left at the end of his six weeks and never returned. I did have a much better History teacher later on. But his abilities are not relevant to this article.

For the rest of that year, however, I continued to play truant as much as in the past. Once established, habits are hard things to break. This said, I suppose I can justify the absence. I had spent two years avoiding school, but not education. When I played truant from school, I used to go to the local library and read. I read hundreds of books there and turned over thousands. I went through encyclopaedias. I studied history and the non-mathematical parts of the sciences. I read about law and politics. I read masses of historical novels and most of the English classics. I taught myself Latin and basic musical theory. I bought a telescope and sat up all night looking at the stars. I learnt how to build and repair wireless sets. It was an undirected, patchy kind of learning, and I arrived at the critical time of my education erudite in some areas, utterly ignorant in others. I could explain the atomic theory of Epicurus, but could not divide seven by four.

But I did eventually give up on truancy. Just before the Christmas of 1974, my Armenian Mathematics teacher got hold of me and read me a tremendous lecture about the need to pass my O Levels, otherwise I might end up like the other boys in worthless careers. He told me I should be thinking about university—no one else from that school ever had gone to university, nor ever did, but he was sure I could. I rather liked him. More importantly, I respected him. And, though he was full enough in class about the equality of man and the horrors of the existing class system—the Soviet Union, he once assured me, would overtake America economically in the 1980s! -, he put me into a terrible of snobbery —so much that I stopped playing truant and began to apply myself to the approaching examinations. It was now that I moved to the top in every class, even in Mathematics.

The first result was that I confused the other teachers. They had been used to regard me as an occasional presence in their classes, but did not expect anything of me. When in the April of 1975, I handed in a 30 page analysis of the rise of German national socialism, I was accused of plagiarism. Even after I had produced my sources and made a long oral presentation, the teachers remains suspicious. It was only after I did well in the examinations of that summer that they decided to put effort into my education at school. By now, as said, my attendance was exemplary, and so it remained to the end of my time there.

What Truancy did for Me

What does all this say about truancy? I am speaking here only for myself, but several conclusions seem clear. The first is that I played truant in the first instance because I did not feel there was much point in being at school. I much preferred the education I could get for myself in the library or at home. I stopped when I found I had teachers who were not ignorant of their subjects, and did not have to learn beside other children whose time would have been better employed crawling up chimneys or picking oakum. I then continued to play truant for a while because of habit and because I positively enjoyed being in charge of my education.

The second conclusion is that truancy may often be not merely a rational but also a wise choice. It would be false modesty to deny that I have done well since leaving school. I owe this success overwhelmingly to the fact that I was hardly ever present for nearly half the time I was enrolled there. I dread to think what would have become of me had my school possessed the efficient administration and powerful means of coercion that most writers on truancy regard as desirable. It is a serious defect of most writing on truancy that schooling and education are regarded as one and that same thing, and that to miss out on the first is necessarily to miss out on the second. They are not necessarily the same, and in many more cases than mine, they are not actually the same.

Speaking purely for myself, I found that there were benefits and disadvantages to the education I had. The chief benefit was that it developed parts of my character that might otherwise have remained less developed. I arrived at manhood with a strong belief in my own judgement, even when I was in a minority of one. I distrusted official authority, and had no respect for opinions just because they were held by those in authority. I also found learning by myself the easiest approach to knowledge.

This helped me greatly at university. I went to York University, where self-teaching was regarded as the norm. In those days, attendance at lectures was optional, and the lecturers saw their whole duty as encouraging students to fine things out for themselves. At the beginning of each term, lecturers would publish lists of recommended reading, then would hand out essay titles. Throughout the term, students would be called individually to very long tutorials and expected to justify every controversial statement. Many of the students fount it hard to adapt to this system. They had attended schools where they had been taught in class. I spent three wonderful years in the J.B Morrell Library there, reading whatever I liked, whether or not relevant to my course—though I could usually persuade that it was relevant.

Another advantage is that I have become a very good teacher. I am good in a conventional class room, because I remember all the teaching faults that helped drive me away in my own time there, and try to avoid them. But I really specialise in the private tuition of clever children who have done badly in school. I know what it is like to hate school, and know how to get students to learn and to write without making it look like work. There are several of my old students on my mailing list, and they may care to respond to this claim.

The main disadvantage was that learning by myself magnified an already existing tendency to personal coldness. I have always had trouble making friends. I often repel people with my dead eyes and flat voice, and by my inattention to the usual niceties of friendship. For example, I seldom call people, instead waiting to be called. Every so often, I make an effort to overcome this defect, but it has become second nature and is not easily to be thrown off. This comes, I am sure from having spent so much of my teenage years in frequently intense communion with dead writers and with almost no one else. The dead, after all, may continue giving richly of themselves for millennia, but, unlike the living, do not observably demand anything in return.

Is Truancy to be Encouraged?

Returning to my second conclusion, just given, and speaking more generally, I am inclined to think compulsory state schooling a bad thing. I do not believe that education is in economic terms a merit good—that is, something that will be under consumed relative to its utility. I grant there are positive externalities to be had from education. But most parents will want their children to have some education simply for its direct benefits to the children. We know this from those poor countries in which parents will make heavy sacrifices on behalf of their children. Professor James Tooley is the main expert on this. We know also from the history of England that most children received an adequate education long before the State intervened with its own subsidised and then free schools and with compulsion to attend them. The late E.G. West is the expert on this. We know that state education is grossly inefficient and horribly wasteful of resources. Professor Bruce Cooper is one of the relevant experts on this. Then there is the wider libertarian claim that compulsory state education is an assault on the rights of those compelled to attend and on those compelled to pay.

I also believe that compulsory state education is an evil that goes beyond these objections. If education itself produces positive externalities, the addition of the two adjectives compulsory and state balance and even overbalance these with negative externalities. There is a strand of neo-Marxist thinking— Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis are the main experts here - that claims schooling to be the means by which capitalism reproduces itself: it instils in working class children a set of values hostile to their true interests. In its specifics, this is an absurd claim. It is true, however, in its generality. As with most neo-Marxist theory, it says little about what is being attacked, but much about the intentions of those making the attack. State schools do not turn out adults who believe in the rule of law and in free enterprise. But they do turn out adults who are inclined to believe in the opposite. Though state education has now been so thoroughly ruined that little seems to be taught either good or bad, and the Establishment media has largely taken over the job, state education has for as long as it has existed been the reproduction mechanism for various kinds of statist ideology. Until the middle of the last century, it was the means by which people were made into good nationalists: would ten million young men have marched semi-willingly to their death in the Great War without the prior conditioning of state education? Since then, it has been captured by the radical socialists.

I read John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty when I was 17. One of the passages that most struck me then was this on state education:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.
(Chapter V, "Applications")

I had a very frosty response when I quoted this in an essay for one of my teachers. I will now say that the homogenising effect of compulsory state education is so dangerous that truancy should not be regarded as wholly a bad thing. Certainly, when children absent themselves from school and make a nuisance of themselves in shopping centres, that is a problem. But when a child is getting something that approximates to an education outside formal schooling, I do believe that the authorities should at least connive at the absence.

Concluding Remarks

Now, I could leave my readers with the impression that I attended a comprehensively dreadful school in the company of violent barbarians. This is not so. As said, I did find good teachers, and I shall be forever grateful for all they did on my behalf. And, in Mario Huet, I found as good a friend as anyone could wish for. We have spent the past 30 years swapping moral support that has made us closer than brothers. And the contempt of intellectual things was not universal. I got on very well with the girls from the neighbouring school. We spent one very happy afternoon reading by ourselves through Antony and Cleopatra. I took the part of Cleopatra to general amusement. It is worth noting here that these were working class South London girls. They had trouble neither with the verse form nor with Elizabethan grammar and vocabulary. Unless ethnic patois and MTV have had a more corrupting effect than I can imagine, I do not understand those teachers who say Shakespeare is above the heads of modern children.

However, I must conclude. Had my school bothered with a curriculum that involved subjects worth learning, and had it employed teachers able or willing to do their jobs, I might not have played truant so often. But I return to the beginning of this article. For over a decade, I have been involved in a research project that is trying to establish that truancy is neither delinquency nor illness, but a response to bad curriculum and bad teaching. That is what we have learnt from looking at the results of our questionnaire surveys and from the interviews we have conducted. That is what I know to be the case from my own experience.