The truancy campaign Editorial
Stabroek News
October 26, 2001

Last Tuesday the Schools Welfare Services of the Ministry of Education inaugurated a truancy campaign. In our edition of October 24 we reported that as a consequence, six students had been detained for a few hours, one street child had been taken into protective custody and some 15 children had been given advice by the officers who had participated in the exercise.

Some of the children caught in the net were genuine truants, in the sense that they themselves were responsible for not attending school. There were other cases, however, where the parents or guardians had deliberately denied them access to schooling for economic reasons. The probation and welfare officers of the Ministry of Human Services who were part of the campaign, encountered several cases of child labour. The children were under the age of 14, and were either employed directly or were assisting in the selling of commodities. Genuine hardship was evident in at least some of the instances.

The regulations with regard to truancy date back in their original form to the early period of compulsory education in this country. In those days poverty was no excuse, and sanctions were imposed on parents who did not send their children to school. In 1904-5, for example, 2,482 cautions were issued by inspectors to parents who had not complied with the rules, not a few of whom ended up before a magistrate. If following a court order the child still was not sent, or did not go to school, the parent could be fined or alternatively, spend three to seven days in prison. Part of the explanation for the high attendance record during the heyday of the school system was the severity of the penalties for truancy in the first decades of the twentieth century.

In addition to the sanctions on parents, the schools themselves were also much better at tracking students than is the case nowadays. There were orderly arrangements within educational institutions for accounting for pupils; attendance registers were religiously kept, and there was an emphasis on punctuality. A form teacher would soon know, therefore, if a pupil was present or not, and if he or she was absent for two or three days a parent or guardian would have to supply an excuse. If nothing was forthcoming the child's home would be visited, or, depending on the school, the parent summoned by the teacher or head.

Of course, thirty years ago and before, a class was rarely left unattended - teachers did not disappear to UG leaving their students to their own devices - there was not the severe shortage of teachers there is now, and those who taught the classes knew who was supposed to be there. Even a subject teacher, as opposed to a form master or mistress, would notice if a pupil was absent. Punctiliously maintained registers, conscientious teachers and insistence on punctuality in the schools, therefore, were the first line of defence against truancy.

For those children who slipped through the system there were inspectors in the early days, and later truancy officers (who were still functioning for some years after independence) who would scour the streets and the cinemas for delinquents.

Unfortunately, the problems are more complex nowadays. Parents obviously cannot be sent to prison for the truancy of their children, and hardship cases in any case require an altogether different approach. It is unlikely that there will be any great improvement in the orderly functioning of schools in the immediate future (although it should be noted that some schools are infinitely better run than others), and any truancy campaign will consequently have to concentrate on the streets. If it is to be successful, however, it should be an ongoing process, and not something which is done once or twice and then abandoned.

Co-ordinator of the Schools Welfare Services, Ms Yvonne Arthur, told the media on Tuesday that the truancy exercise was intended as the first in a series, and one can only hope that the series too does not have a termination point. Education is critical in breaking the cycle of poverty, and step one is for children actually to attend school on a regular basis.