Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, suspects truancy is linked to children's embarrassment at being unable to read. Councils should check the "reading ages" of truants.
It would be interesting to know how many councillors have arranged to discuss the week-end's news that, nationally, around one in ten white boys (23,860 youngsters) fails to get 5 GCSEs at any grade.
In several local authorities the proportion of white boys failing to achieve 5 GCSEs at any grade is one in five. The failure rates for white boys in the worst performing local authorities (with the percentage who failed in brackets) are:
Manchester (22.3%), Southwark (22.2%), Hull (20.5%), Knowsley (20.4%), Leicester (20.0%), Nottingham (19.9%), Southampton (19.3%), Sandwell (18.1%), Islington (17.1%) and Wandsworth (16.0%). By contrast, only 1.7% of white boys in Rutland failed to obtain five GCSEs and only 2.7% in Kensington and Chelsea. As Professor Alan Smithers commented: "It's not hard to achieve [five GCSEs] after 11 years of schooling. If they can't, it says something very important about how our education system is failing their needs."
The reasons for these high failure rates among white boys are unclear. But it probably has something to do with unsupportive families and a culture that is anti-school and anti-learning. Why are the national failure rates for Asian boys only 6.6% and for Chinese boys only 4.6%?
My money would also be on failure to learn to read from an early age. As far as we know, no-one in any local authority has ever attempted to put cause and effect together. Matthew Davis, the journalist who first unearthed these failure rates, used a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). When the DCSF refused, he was compelled to appeal to the Information Commissioner. Why the secrecy? And local authorities know (or should know) what is going on before they give their statistics to the DCSF. How many are seriously tackling the problem?
On a separate but related issue, it is widely believed that large numbers of youngsters, especially boys, truant because they haven't learnt to read properly – something which is impossible to hide in school. When will a local authority be brave enough to put these two factors together and get some evidence: check the 'reading ages' of all their persistent truants and publish the results for everyone's benefit?
If they find the theory is correct, they could improve their teaching of reading, reduce their truancy rates and give more youngsters a decent start in life?