Warning over links between truancy and mental health

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An in-depth study has revealed the extent of truancy in England and its complex relationship with disadvantage, exam outcomes, unemployment and mental health. Pete Henshaw reports.

A strong association between truancy and mental health problems has been uncovered by a study involving thousands of young people.

The research also reveals the extent to which truancy, both low and high-level, has a negative impact on examination outcomes and employment in later life.

The researchers, Gaynor Attwood from the University of the West of England and Paul Croll from the University of Reading, argue that their findings suggest that school-based interventions could be key to reducing truancy.

The research, which has been published in the academic journal Educational Studies, is based upon data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, involving more than 15,000 young people born in 1989 and 1990.

It finds that when surveyed during year 10, one in five of the young people admitted to being truant for the “odd day” or “for certain lessons”. Around one in 40 reported more serious levels of truancy involving missing days or weeks at a time.

The findings show that both types of truancy are strongly associated with a number of negative outcomes, including unemployment at age 20, mental health issues, and examination results.

For example, about one in eight of the students who had not truanted failed to get a C in any GCSE subject at 16. However, this level doubled for those with low-level truancy and was more than four times as high for high-level truants.

The researchers state: “It is perhaps not surprising that serious truancy is associated with poor examination outcomes, but it is striking that even truanting for the odd day or lesson is associated with much poor outcomes than those of the non-truants.”

They continued: “Truanting at age 14 or 15 is also strongly associated with not participating in education at age 20. While nearly half of the non-truants were still in education at this age, just over a quarter of the lower level truants and only one in eight of the higher level truants were still participating in education.”

Furthermore, low-level truants were twice as likely to be unemployed at age 20 and high-level truants four times as likely. Those students who had low or high-level truancy were also more likely to report lower “life satisfaction”.

The article acknowledges a wealth of existing research showing the link between disadvantaged students and both truancy and poorer outcomes. However, by breaking down the data by socio-economic group, the researchers show that truancy has a negative influence on outcomes that is independent of the impact that disadvantage has – however, the picture is complex.

The researchers state: “In almost all of the (socio-economic groups), the comparison shows that high-level truants had worse outcomes than low-level truants who in turn had worse outcomes than non-truants. This pattern was particularly clear for GCSE results and was especially marked in terms of the difference between high-level truants and other young people.

“Among the highest socio-economic group, higher level truants were 10 times more likely than non-truants to have no good GCSE results and were twice as likely as non-truants from the lowest socio-economic group to have no good GCSEs. So it is clear that socio-economic advantages cannot compensate for serious truancy levels with regard to examination outcomes at 16.”

However, the research did find that when it came to low-level truancy, there are indications that socio-economic status could be a “more powerful influence”. For example, low-level truants from well-off families had better outcomes than non-truants from lower socio-economic groups.

The researchers have also discovered a “strong association” between truancy and wellbeing and argue that “for many young people these problems are cumulative”. 

Serious levels of distress and inability to cope were experienced by as many as one in five of the young people, they say, with young women being “much more likely” to report negative feelings than their male counterparts. 

This part of the research is based on responses to 12 questions from the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) relating to mental health and wellbeing, including issues such as losing sleep through worry, feeling unhappy and depressed, able to handle problems, and feeling worthless.

The study found that almost one in five young people reported negative feelings for four or more of the 12 questions, while a minority of these responded negatively to more than half.

The researchers state: “The highest level of response was reporting feeling constantly under strain which was the case for more than a quarter of the total sample and a third of the young women. Other high levels of reported problems were feeling unhappy and depressed, feeling unable to overcome difficulties and losing sleep through worry.”

The research found no relation between these negative responses and socio-economic status or attainment levels. However, bullying and truancy was related to these indicators: “The figures for GHQ levels show considerable differences relating to the experiences of bullying and of truancy. Young people who report being bullied have well over twice the level of negative GHQ responses as those who do not. 

“Similarly, truancy and levels of truancy are strongly related to the wellbeing measure. Young people who have not truanted have the lowest level of negative responses and those with high levels of truancy have more than twice the levels of negative response than the non-truants.

“The wellbeing issues are at their highest for the high-level truants but it should be emphasised that even low levels of truancy are associated with lower levels of wellbeing. For example, this group of truants, both male and female, experience twice the level of the most serious wellbeing problems as equivalent non-truants.”

The research also looks at why students truant and discovered that more than half gave a dislike of an aspect of school, teachers or lessons as the reason, while around 20 per cent said they were “bored”, and around five per cent said they were bullied. Paradoxically, most students who admitted to truanting acknowledged the importance of doing well at school.

You can read the full article, entitled Truancy and Wellbeing Among Secondary School Pupils in England, at http://bit.ly/1Khkuv8


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