The truancy debate – the forgotten question

The government is grappling with the latest recommendations to tackle school truancy, but exam truancy is a neglected problem that deserves attention. CERP’s Suzanne Chamberlain explains.

The media spotlight is currently on truancy following the publication of the government’s report on school attendance. Much of this attention has focused on term-time holidays, but there is another kind of truancy, with potentially very different underlying causes and significant long term implications, that has so far failed to make the headlines.

Exams: the truant’s target?

Students’ patterns of exam absenteeism and truancy have, so far, gone largely unnoticed. However, CERP researchers have conducted two studies that suggest assessment may be a neglected factor in the truancy debate.  

We looked at students’ patterns of attendance for various GCSE exams and found evidence to suggest that some students were absent from, and appeared to be ‘opting out’ of, particular types of assessment.

Of the GCSEs we looked at, the assessments most likely to be affected by absenteeism were oral tests, such as GCSE French and German speaking tests, high stakes written exams in GCSE English, and a GCSE ICT project which students completed with very little input from teachers.

Our research suggested that between 2 and 4 per cent of students had one or more unexplained exam absences. With more than 600,000 candidates taking over 5 million GCSE exams last year alone, this is not an insignificant problem.

Typically, the students absent from exams gained lower component-level scores than students who completed all assessments for each qualification, and their overall qualification scores were, on average, one-third of the students’ who completed all assessments. This suggests that they were less able students. In some cases, ‘opting out’ of these assessments may have involved some effort, requiring one or more days of absenteeism or truancy. 

The fear factor

The patterns of targeted exam absence suggest that these students have underlying reasons for their truancy. The anxiety and stress associated with high stakes assessment could be one such factor, and is an area we have also investigated.

It is well documented that there is a direct link between anxiety and poor academic performance. Although some anxiety can be a useful motivator, anxiety becomes debilitating when it disrupts students’ ability to focus and complete the mental processes required of them during an exam. Students who have experience of repeated failure in assessment are more likely to be anxious, and it becomes a vicious circle as academic failure, anxiety and absenteeism feed into each other.

Yes, term-time truancy is a problem. But exam truancy is a neglected issue that appears to involve a different group of students, those perhaps not equipped with the cognitive, emotional and practical skills to cope with the pressures of high stakes assessment. These students must not be forgotten as the debate on tackling truancy continues.

Suzanne Chamberlain is a Senior Research Associate at CERP

  1. Taylor, C. (2012). Improving attendance at school [PDF]. Department for Education.
  2. Chamberlain, S. (2008). Sleeping in or selecting out? Candidates' absence from GCSE examinations. Research in Education, 79(1), 53-66.
  3. Chamberlain, S., Daly, A. and Spalding, V. (2011). The fear factor: students’ experiences of test anxiety when taking A-level examinations. Pastoral Care in Education, 29(3), 193-205.

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