Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

We know students skip school. But more important is knowing why, and sometimes the main reasons may be different than you think. n their article “Truancy and well-being among secondary school pupils in England” published in a special issue of the journal Educational Studies on School Attendance and Behaviour, Gaynor Attwood and Paul Croll reflect on thousands of responses from the seven-year Longitudinal Study of Young People in England.

From the press release:

They discovered that ‘problems of truancy and mental well-being are both features of the lives of many young people’, although happily, ‘neither is characteristic of the majority’.

One in five of the year-10 pupils surveyed admitted to being truant the ‘odd day’ or ‘just for certain lessons’, with boys and girls having very similar levels. High levels of truancy – days or weeks at a time – were much less common. Of those who did admit to playing truant, more than half gave a dislike of an aspect of school, teachers or lessons as the reason; just over 20% said they were bored and just over 5% said they were bullied. Interestingly, most truants acknowledged the importance of doing well at school, even though truancy is associated with the very opposite.

Attwood and Croll tease out the complex associations between truancy, socio-economic status, exam results and future employment. Truancy of all types was associated with a variety of negative outcomes. Even truanting ‘for the odd day or lesson’ is associated with ‘much poorer outcomes than those of the non-truants’. By way of example, the authors found that low-level truants were twice as likely to be unemployed at age 20 than non-truants, and high-level truants four times. Well over half the higher-level truants studied failed to get even one C grade.

Attwood and Croll also discovered a strong association between truancy and wellbeing, demonstrating that ‘for many young people these problems are cumulative’.  Serious levels of distress and inability to cope were experienced by perhaps as many as one in five of the young people under study.

The authors were particularly struck by the fact the young women were ‘much more likely’ to report negative feelings than their male counterparts, with the gender difference even more pronounced at the extreme end of the scale.

This article is essential reading for anyone responsible for the education or mental wellbeing of teenagers, because, as the authors conclude, ‘truancy needs to be seen in the context of the many difficulties facing young people and as part of wider issues of social adjustment.’

Abstract of the research:

The paper considers two problematic aspects of the lives of young people: the long-standing issues of truancy from school and more recent concerns about the extent of mental well-being. It uses data from a large-scale survey, the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE). LSYPE provides a very large sample which allows for robust analysis of sub-groups within the population, data from families as well as the young people themselves and a panel design, so that characteristics of the young people at one point in time can be related to later outcomes. The results show the extent of truancy among year-10 pupils with well over one in five reporting truanting but high levels of truancy much less common. The reasons given for truancy mostly revolved around dislike of aspects of school. Truancy, even at low levels, was associated with more negative outcomes such as poor examination results and later unemployment. Data on mental well-being, based on the General Health Questionnaire, showed the extent of feelings of distress and inability to cope with everyday life with more serious levels affecting perhaps one in five of the young people. Young women were more likely to report problems of mental well-being than young men and truancy was strongly associated with poorer levels of well-being. The contrast between the way that most truants said that it was important to them to do well at school but also that disliking school was given as a reason for truancy suggests the possibility of school interventions.

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