Truancy: Its Measurement and Causation: A Brief Review of the Literature (1994), by Sean Gabb

Truancy: Its Measurement and Causation:
A Brief Review of the Literature
by Sean Gabb
(Adapted from Chapter Two of
The Report of the North London Truancy Unit,
published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office,
London, 1994 (ISBN 0 11 270870 6) –
reproduced with permission from the Crown,
which holds full copyright.


In this paper, we will discuss some of the traditional answers given to the question – Why do children play truant? This may be regarded as an important question for a number of reasons:

First, truancy is disobedience. Children are sent to school. It is the law that they go there. If they choose not to go, they are disobeying adult authority, either of their parents or of the State.

Second, it is said to lead to other, more tangible forms of delinquency. Despite some evidence to the contrary, there is a common association of truancy with crimes such as theft, criminal damage, robbery with violence, and abusive conduct. In those inner-city areas where truancy patrols have been established, the incidence of these crimes has been observed to fall (Reid, 1987). These facts, if true, may reinforce the pessimistic view of children, which holds that they will, unless confined in school, do something by themselves, and that this will be more often bad than good. They tend also, however, to reinforce the meliorist view of children, on which rests much of the argument for a compulsory education at least subsidised and inspected by the State (Mill, 1859).

Report of the North London Truancy UnitAccording to this view, it is possible to take a child and, away from all family influences and with peer pressures minimised so far as possible, to impart the bases of whatever is currently held to constitute good citizenship. This was the rationale behind the educational efforts of the absolutist states of old Europe. In a more liberal form, the view was advanced by the advocates of State support for education in nineteenth century England (Macaulay, 1847). It has also been advanced, if turned on its head, by those neo-Marxists who claim that, while there undoubtedly is one, the effect on society of schooling is largely malign in so far as it reproduces an unjust set of power relationships (Bowles and Gintis, 1976; Ramsay, 1983).

Granting that school is good, the reciprocal is never far behind, that lack of schooling is bad. Thus the popular emphasis on what bad things children will do out of school.

It may even be that truancy, once established in a family, becomes hereditary. Robins et. al. (1979) reported that persistent truants tend to marry each other and to encourage or tolerate truancy in their children.

Third, it may be that the meliorists are wrong, in that the relationship between truancy and the various forms of delinquency may be one of common effect rather than of cause and effect (Farrington, 1986). Perhaps there are some people disposed as children to break windows and as adults to go on the dole, who are also disposed to stay away from school. But this hypothesis, if correct, tends not to deny the usefulness of seeking an answer to our question, but instead to give new grounds for seeking one.

Fourth, there are considerations of cost. The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for 26,000 primary and secondary schools throughout England and Wales. It supplies the lion’s share of finance for teachers’ salaries, and provides much other educational finance. Its current spending is based on the assumption that there will be nine million children in the schools to be taught. Once committed, this money must be spent regardless of how many children are actually attending the schools. The larger the number of children absenting themselves from these schools, therefore, the greater the waste of public resources.

These are some of the reasons why truancy is a subject thought worth investigating, and has been so thought – if in differing degree – for much of this century.


Now, an obvious preliminary question is to ask – What exactly is truancy? None of the various Education Acts defines truancy; nor is this lack supplied in the case law. Nor, indeed, have the various researchers agreed a definition. Must every child who is absent from school, for whatever reason, be classified as a truant? This is the opinion of Reynolds and Murgatroyd (1977 – cited Galloway, 1985). The DfE category “authorised” absence suggests a narrower classification. We can narrow the definition by saying that a child plays truant who is absent from school without leave, so excluding those children who are certified or accepted as too ill to attend. But this still includes those children who are absent with leave given by their parents, or who are actually kept at home by their parents – for evidence that this is a reasonably common occurrence, see Galloway et. al. (1982).

Also, it may be asked if we do right always to exclude absences due to self-inflicted medical conditions or negligence. Boyson (1974) mentions the 1,200 under age girls who became pregnant in 1970.

We can narrow the definition of the truant again by following Tyerman (1968), who reserves the term for children who are absent from school purely on their own initiative. This is the definition adopted by Galloway (1985). However, Hersov (1977) goes still further, dividing from truants “school phobics” and school refusers, many of whom – depending on how they are in turn defined – will be absent on their own initiative.

Since the term has been given different meanings by different writers, the literature cannot be regarded as dealing with an homogeneous subject. Conclusions reached in one study of truants cannot automatically be regarded as supported or disputed by conclusions reached in another: care must first be taken to ensure that the same or at least a similar definition has been given to truancy.


According to Adams (1978),

[w]hen it comes to analysing root causes [of truancy] there are the wildest divergencies of viewpoints and theories – the effects of a sick society, the abandonment of religious beliefs and moral values, the consequences of an unjust social and economic system, or even, as I have heard it convincingly argued, as a result of damage done to the nervous system by excess lead in the urban atmosphere in which many of us are condemned to live and work.

But this divergence is more apparent than real. Explanations fall under two headings. Children play truant either because their schools are not so well organised in some respects as they might be, or because the children themselves are ill-equipped to deal with the normal pressures of schooling. Each of these in turn will be examined.

The Causes of Truancy: Children and their Backgrounds?

In their introduction to what remains one of the principal texts on the subject, Hersov and Berg (1980) state with untroubled confidence that

[t]he epidemiological contributions to this book clearly demonstrate the importance of age, sex, and social background in determining the prevalence of unjustifiable absence from school.

They add (see also Cooper, 1966):

It is still uncertain to what extent factors within the school contribute to the problem….

This is and has been the broad consensus of opinion among researchers. There is a large body of literature, going back at least into the last century, seeking to explain truancy in terms of failings among children and their families (eg, Kline, 1898; Healy, 1915). In the 1920s, Burt (Tyerman, 1968) elaborated the first concept of “school phobia”, describing how some children stayed away from schools that had been used by them and their parents as air raid shelters during the Great War. They associated school with fear of death and became “neurotic” when compelled to go there. In the 1930s, there were the psychoanalytic theories of Broadwin (Tyerman, 1968), relating truancy to various complexes.

These earlier theories were not long accepted, if at all. Broadwin can be criticised for having reasoned from premises that were by no means certain to conclusions that he made little attempt to verify by empirical research. Burt’s earliest concept of school phobia could not have lasted beyond the middle 1920s, and may have been an attempt less to explain truancy than to attract larger government funding for its treatment through the use of fashionable semi-medical terms. Even so, the tradition was set. Since then, many researchers have devoted themselves to discovering what is wrong with the personalities or backgrounds or both of those children who play truant.

According to various primary and secondary teachers interviewed by Farrington (1980), truants were

lazy, lacked concentration, were restless, were difficult to discipline, did not care about being a credit to their parents, and were not clean and tidy on their arrival at school.

Translated into more neutral terms, this description is seconded by much other research. The association of truancy with delinquency has been mentioned above. Otherwise, truants are said to do badly in intelligence tests (Farrington, 1980), to have low levels of self-esteem (Reid, 1982), and to tend towards unshapeliness and uncleanliness (Tyerman, 1968).

Their backgrounds are believed to be equally unfortunate. They are said to come predominantly from poor families, where the father – if actually present and working – has a job with low earnings and low status and low security (Tyerman, 1968, Farrington, 1980; Reid, 1986). They live usually in the inner cities, in bad and overcrowded properties (Tyerman, 1968; Galloway, 1980). There is a tendency for their parents not to care about punctuality or attendance or homework (Reid, 1986).

Whether – as by the teachers interviewed by Farrington (1980) – we regard truants in a moralistic light, or as the pitiable victims of circumstance, the conclusions reached by this line of research are straightforward. If children play truant, it is because they are for various reasons unable to cope with school. Truancy is their problem; and any attempt to stop them from playing truant must be concerned with readjusting them.

The Causes of Truancy: Schools? (i)

However, this whole line of research has been challenged. Carroll et al (1977), looking at schools in South Wales, doubt if children or their backgrounds can be the sole or even the principal cause of truancy. Reynolds and Murgatroyd (1977) are careful to show that the schools served

a relatively homogeneous community with very small differences in the social class composition of the people who live in the catchment areas of the different schools.

Yet the study finds that patterns of deviancy and attendance vary greatly between different schools within this homogeneous catchment area. The suggestion is that the schools themselves play at least some part in causing these variable rates. Rutter et. al. (1979), investigating 12 Inner London schools, reach much the same conclusion.

This research has been questioned. Galloway (1985) draws attention to the small numbers of pupils examined in the Carroll et. al. study – ranging between 17 and 60. His main objection, though, is that there may have been a significant heterogeneity in the social backgrounds of the children despite the care taken to show their homogeneity. He concedes that there may be some truth in the results – as do Reynolds et. al. (1980) – but stresses what he believes are the

methodological difficulties in demonstrating the differences between schools are due to factors within the schools and not to factors in their catchment areas.

Another reason, though, why such research is often questioned – indeed, why it forms so small a part of the total of the research into truancy (Galloway, 1985) – is that it disturbs many of the researchers’ most basic assumptions. It has been suggested that, irrespective of how good the evidence may be, the choice of where mainly to seek evidence has been prompted by considerations other than pure academic curiosity.

There is the persistent belief, mentioned above, that schooling is good. Reynolds et. al. (1980) – see also Jones (1980) – note how hard it is, on ideological grounds, for many educational researchers to accept that it may not be good. This reluctance may at times have been increased by professional self-interest. Reynolds et. al. (1980), for example, describe how what might have been an interesting survey of how schools generate delinquency was frustrated in 1971 by the Inner London Educational Authority and the National Union of Teachers working together: non-cooperation, coupled with threats of industrial action, ensured that the research was cut short.

Yet there is a body of theoretical and empirical literature that looks to school itself as a cause of truancy. As we have seen, Carroll (1977) doubts if children or their backgrounds can be the sole or even the principal cause of truancy. He finds that patterns of deviancy and attendance vary greatly between different schools within the same, homogeneous, catchment area. Such differences in these rates, he suggests, cannot be wholly related to the children.

Cloward and Ohlin (1961) regard truancy as part of a wider delinquency caused by “blocked opportunity” within school. Working class children begin their school careers reasonably confident about their aims and ambitions in life. But the middle class bias of school tends to denigrate these aims and ambitions and to push others in their place that the children dislike, but lack the sophistication consciously to examine and reject. The result is a disaffection with school and its ideals that can result in delinquency.

Mays (1964), writing of working class children in Liverpool, comments that delinquency is

not so much a symptom of maladjustment as of adjustment to a sub-culture, in conflict with the culture of the city as a whole.

Cicourel and Kituse (1963) look more to the structure of relationships within school between teachers and pupils, how these progressively erode the self-esteem of working class pupils and produce feelings of inferiority that, again, lead to delinquent behaviour.

Such broadly is the view taken by Carson, Gleeson and Wardhaugh (1992). They accept the traditional description of truants as children with what are normally defined as “problems”, but go on to claim that the whole present structure of society, and not only schools, are responsible for truancy. There is, they say, “much pain, hurt and suffering around current educational arrangements” that derive from the preoccupations of the last century with social control and the “normalisation” of the new working class. The marginalisation of certain categories of children by the present system of schooling forces them into truancy as a “mode of resistance”. This in turn gives the authorities an excuse to control “families living at the margins of respectability”, so reinforcing their “social exclusion”.

Less ambitious than Carlen, Gleeson and Ward, other neo-Marxists have looked into the effect of the curriculum alone on truancy. Ramsay (1983) refers to the

claim that knowledge is being used as a form of social control.

Behind the façade of Maths and English, he repeats, there is said to be a “hidden curriculum” to keep working class and ethnic minority children in their places. Truancy is, in part, a protest against this pressure.

Some negative evidence in support of these views can be seen in the better attendance figures supposedly enjoyed by some schools that adopt a non-racist, non-classist curriculum (Ramsay 1983).

A similar importance has been claimed for the effect of the curriculum on truancy from the opposite political extreme. Thus Boyson (1974):

The increase in truancy has gone hand in hand with the schools’ retreat from their primary task of schooling. Pupils know that the emphasis on “liberation”, “social orientation” and “life-enhancement” has little relevance to them and is simply a means whereby their teachers act out their own frustrations…. Ordinary boys and their parents know that schools are for schooling and they see little point in attending schools which cease to offer it.

This brings us to another curriculum-based explanation of truancy. Before moving further, however, it is necessary, to pause and look again at the concept of truancy – not this time at its meaning so much as at its measurement.

The Measurement of Truancy

One of the most basic questions facing any truancy researcher is – How many children fail to attend school? Once a figure has been found, it can be fitted into the various conceptual schemes to see what proportion of absences can and cannot be ascribed to truancy. But the figure must in the first place be found. The great majority of researchers find this by looking in the morning and afternoon registers of attendance kept by the schools and passed on to the local education authorities. This is where Tyerman (1968), for example, finds the data with which he supports his view that

annual rate of absence from school is about 10 per cent,

and that

more than half the children who regularly play truant are maladjusted, and their truancy is a warning that they may be developing delinquent tendencies.

For all their differences over definition, their common reliance on the attendance registers allows most researchers to settle on a truancy rate around 15 per cent.

The problem is, however, that the registers may not accurately reflect attendance. Cameron (1974), commenting on an Inner London Education Authority truancy survey – showing an average secondary school attendance rate in 1974 of 84.6 per cent (ILEA, 1975) – claimed that the registers were “wide-open to rigging” by head teachers and other interested persons. More important, though, than casual fraud is the possibility that the attendance registers are systematically under-reporting the scale of non-attendance.

According to Williams (1974),

[t]he most serious deficiency of the register is that it misses completely the children who skip class after the count is taken at the beginning of the morning and afternoon sessions.

He follows this with several passages of anecdotal evidence, indicating the potentially large scale of the problem – and therefore its refuting effect on much of the standard categorising of truants – but makes no effort to analyse or refine his own term “postregistration truancy”. Following this introduction of the subject, Galloway (1976) looks briefly at “hidden truancy”, and Reid (1985) at “specific lesson absence”. But is was O’Keeffe (1981) who first uses the term in a systematic way, and develops from it an alternative curriculum-based theory of truancy.

The Causes of Truancy: School? (ii)

In his first study of the subject, O’Keeffe (1981) divides truancy into two types. There is “blanket” truancy, where the child stays completely away from school, and which has been the only object of much study. Then there is post-registration truancy, where “the child is marked officially present at school, but is subsequently absent from some/all lessons”. He claims that, while no systematic research had yet been done here, “such truancy is on a huge scale”.

Moreover, according to Stoll and O’Keeffe (1989), the scale of Post Registration Truancy escalated throughout the 1980s. They cite a spot check on attendance among 4th year pupils in a North London comprehensive school. The average attendance during a particular lesson was found to be 64 per cent. A year later, the spot check was repeated on the same pupils. Their average attendance had declined to 61 per cent.

Starting in 1985, Stoll and O’Keeffe headed a three year research project to identify the scale and causes of both Blanket and Post Registration Truancy. They studied 105 pupils as they moved through their third, fourth and fifth years at a mixed comprehensive school in North London. Data was collected from the pupils directly via questionnaires, anonymity assured but stringent controls imposed on the analysis of the data to minimise untruthfulness.

This was a novel approach, so far as earlier researchers – eg, Tyerman (1968) had confined their attention to those truanting children referred to them by educational psychologists. Since only a small minority of children are ever sent to a psychologist, it is possible that all the research concerning their truancy is correct – but that they form only a small minority of truants; and few conclusions, if any, derived from observing them can be applied to truants in general. By setting their pupil questionnaires, Stoll and O’Keeffe were seeking to discover – first the true scale of truancy, and, this established, its commonest causes.

The initial results showed a “staggeringly high number of truants” (Stoll and O’Keeffe, 1989). 66 per cent of pupils confessed to having truanted at some time during their secondary schooling – 50 per cent Post Registration, 5 per cent Blanket, and 11 per cent combined. 57 per cent of the 66 per cent confessed to playing truant at least once a month; and 72 per cent of the 57 per cent confessed to doing so still more frequently. These rates increased during the fourth and fifth years.

The great majority of truants claimed to dislike specific lessons – eg, Science, French and Games – rather than school as a whole. 54 per cent of third years replying said that they liked school, most of the remainder at least believing that they were learning something useful.

Stoll and O’Keeffe directing, a Truancy Research Unit was set up in 1989, to look at truancy throughout the country. The same methods were used, and much the same results were reached. Truancy was widespread, mostly Post Registration. High among stated reasons was the obligation to complete a lot of course work for the GCSE examinations – mostly for English and Mathematics.

Without giving much critical attention to the earlier literature – other than to note its methodological limitations – Stoll and O’Keeffe claim that Post Registration Truancy is the most common type, and that its causes are “principally a curricular issue”.

Their findings have been challenged. Gray and Jesson (1990) draw on the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales, which is a national survey of young people’s experiences of school, work, post-compulsory education and training (see Gray et. al., 1989). They draw attention to a question asked of and answered by more than 40,000 young people:

Did you play truant in your fifth year at school?

The answers seem to confirm the earlier belief in a low truancy rate. For example,

one in twenty (5%) reported that they were absent for days or weeks at a time…. [A]round one in ten (10%) reported that they absented themselves for particular days or lessens during their fifth year….

Moreover, Gray and Jesson interpret their data in a way that allows them to say that

there was no evidence that truancy was getting worse, at least in the period covered in the surveys, which cover the second half of the eighties.

They say also that truancy is a largely inner-city phenomenon, so returning the focus to the disadvantages or failings of the pupils themselves.

However, the Gray and Jesson analysis does not seem entirely to answer the points made by Stoll and O’Keeffe.

First, though they draw on a sample rather larger than do Stoll and O’Keeffe, the members of the sample were questioned only after they had left school. There is a lack of contemporaneity about the results. Their school experiences overlaid by other impressions, it may be that many of the young people questioned about whether they truanted and if so how often were giving answers at variance with what actually happened. They are being asked to give answers to questions with all the benefit of hindsight. The Stoll and O’Keeffe research concentrates on young people still at school, and asks about their present experience.

Second, though familiar with O’Keeffe’s work, Gray and Jesson make no sharp distinction between Blanket and post-registration truancy. They prefer instead to distinguish truancy only on the basis of hours spent away from school – between “serious” and “selective” truancy. Thus the possible answers to their above question are:

  • For Weeks at a time
  • For several days at a time
  • For particular days or lessons
  • For the odd day or lesson
  • Never.

Though mention is made of “lessons”, there is no plain and explicit question about consistent Post Registration truancy. In the absence of their own research into and analysis of Post Registration Truancy, Gray and Jesson cannot be said to have answered Stoll and O’Keeffe. They have merely, by their own use of questionnaires, tacitly admitted the Stoll and O’Keeffe claims about the methodological limitations of the earlier research the conclusions of which they are endeavouring to defend.


Nevertheless, though suggestive and so far unrefuted, the Stoll and O’Keeffe research has still conclusively to replace its earlier rivals. It remains to be seen whether, and if so how far, this new research invalidates the still vigorous mainstream view of truancy as a reflection of deficiencies in the children or their backgrounds, or if the two can be combined to form a new and fruitful synthesis.


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