Hunger, illiteracy, lack of clothes among contributing factors, official says
Just over 100 students were classified as “habitual truants” in the last academic year, according to statistics released by education officials in response to a Freedom of Information request.
The numbers, including 33 primary school and 74 secondary school students, represent a slight increase from the previous two years, though the overall trend over several years shows improvement.
In the 2006/2007 academic year, 144 students out of 3,873, or 3.7 percent, were classified as habitual truants. In the last academic year, 107 students out of 5,077,or 2.1 percent, were classified as habitual truants.
The exacting criteria used to define “habitual truancy” – 15 or more consecutive unexplained absences – suggests the problem could be broader than the figures indicate.
Education officials say they investigate “irregular attendances” that don’t fall within the statistical definition. The Education Law sets targets for missing school not to exceed five unexplained absences per term.
Mike Myles, government’s At-Risk Youth officer, said there were issues with children who consistently skipped school but turned up often enough not to figure in the statistics, based on that criteria.
“You have a number of kids that will be consistently out of school for shorter periods of time. I think you have to recognize that is because they have challenges. It is almost always connected to bigger issues.”
Mr. Myles is working with the islands’ truancy officers to address underlying problems such as hunger, lack of school clothes and severe literacy problems, which he believes are the root causes of truancy, as well as other behavioral issues in school.
The law provides for parents to be fined if their children are consistently skipping school, but Mr. Myles said he could not recall education officials charging parents for their child’s truancy.
He added that the best way to reduce truancy and other behavior issues is to deal with some of the problems in the community linked to unemployment, poverty and parenting.
“I would say that at least 90 percent of the time it really is not the child’s fault. It is something that the parents are not doing. Most of the issues I deal with, the problem is with the parents.”
The 2006 Yolande Forde report on the “predisposing factors” to criminality in the Cayman Islands highlighted truancy as an issue and questioned levels of enforcement.
“The law makes provision for a financial penalty to be imposed on a parent for his/her child’s truancy. However, one magistrate indicated that, for whatever reason, such cases are never brought before her and, given the percentage of children not graduating from the John Gray High School, school attendance must be an issue. Is the fact that there is only one truancy officer for the whole island a factor? This is a matter that needs further examination,” the report stated.
A spokesman for the Education Services Department said there are now two “registration and attendance officers” for the islands, but accepted that enforcement is still an issue.
“We still have a need for greater presence on the streets. There is significant liaison work to be done on this area with other agencies – particularly the police and department for Child and Family Services.”
He said attendance has improved since 2006 with the introduction of new attendance monitoring systems and strategies.
“We can now identify in real time whether registers have been marked and whether students are present,” he said.
Former staff writer Hannah Reid contributed to this story.