The nature of truancy and the life world of truants in secondary schools

Truancy is one of the problems that exist in schools and affect learners’ performance. The aim of the current study was to determine how truancy manifests and also to explore the life world of truants in secondary schools.

From the literature review, the two types of truancy, namely blanket truancy and post- registration truancy were described. Various programmes and approaches used in truancy intervention were explored.

An empirical investigation was undertaken with a sample of 758 Grade 10 learners from three secondary schools. The results indicated that significantly more males than females engaged in truancy. There is also a significant dependency between learning problems and truancy.

The results of the study were analysed and recommendations for intervention and for further study were made.


truancy parental involvement

blanket truancy bullying

post-registration truancy school phobia

cognitive style anti-social behaviour

anti-social behaviour whole-school development




Introductory orientation1

Problem analysis1

The pre-scientific problem awareness1

Exploring the problem4

Incidence and nature of truancy4

Factors associated with truancy6

Truancy differentiated from school phobia8

Statement of the problem9

Aims of research9

General aim9

Specific aim9

Research method10

Demarcation of research10

Explanation of concepts11


A truant11

Secondary school12

Life world12

Research programme12




Blanket truancy14

Perspectives in various countries14

The rate of truancy in terms of gender17

Truancy rate according to the geographical location

of the school 18

Post-registration truancy19

The extent of post-registration truancy19

When are learners likely to stay away from lessons?19

2.3.3 How often do learners engage in post-registration truancy? 20

2.3.4. Which lessons are most learners likely to "bunk"? 21

Do learners engage in both types of truancy?22

Where do learners go when not at school or attending lessons23

Perspectives on factors that contribute to truancy24

Personality aspects24

Anxiety and fear24

Poor social skills25

Low self-esteem25

Anti-social behaviour25

Scholastic failure26

Learning problems26

Cognitive style28

Poor habits arising from initially legitimate reasons29

School factors30

Dilapidated school buildings and poor facilities31

School size31

Movement between classes during lesson change32

Classroom management32


Educator-learner relationship34

Teaching or instructional approach35

Family and other social factors36

Socio-economic status of parents37

Marital status of parents37

Poor parental involvement and supervision38

Peer influence39

Violence and drug use39

Approaches used in the management and reduction of truancy41

Personality aspects41

Tutoring and mentoring systems41

Counselling and therapy42

The school42

Using reinforcement and reward systems43

Using a variety of instructional approaches43

Effective monitoring, registration and recording

of attendance 44

Welcome back to school45

Student welfare45

2. 7.2.6 Life-skills education 46 In-service training 46

Interdepartmental and government initiatives47

Acting fast on learner absence48


Attendance or truancy officers49

Prosecuting parents49

Awareness campaigns50

Whole-school development50

2.8 Conclusion 52



Research problems and hypotheses54

General research problems54

Specific research problems and hypotheses56

The research approach62

Research design62

The research instrument63


Pilot study65

Validity and reliability65

Population and sampling66


The sample66





Statistical analysis and techniques68

Results and discussion of results68

Specific problem statements and hypotheses74



Summary of literature findings89


Nature and extent of truancy89

Factors contributing to truancy90

Personality aspects91

School factors91

Family and other social factors91

Approaches that are used to manage truancy in secondary schools 92

Personal factors92

Interventions at schools92

Inter-departmental cooperation and government initiatives92

Acting fast on learner absence93

Introducing loitering ordinance93

Attendance or truancy officers93


Awareness campaign93

Whole-school development93

Summary of the findings of the empirical investigation94


Contributions of the study98

Limitations of the study98





Introductory orientation

Truancy is about learners who have not been attending school regularly as required by the school, parents and even the authorities. Truant behaviour is a problem for the individual, the family, the school and society in general.

The funding allocations for public schools are made available on the assumption that there will be learners in schools to be taught. Truancy has negative financial implications such as the waste of public resources due to large number of truanting learners. Other negative implications include loss of learning opportunities, poor academic performance and eventual dropout.

Truancy may have both short and long-term effects on society. There is evidence that truancy is linked to delinquent behaviour and juvenile crime (Collins, 1998:38; Reid, 1999:25). It is reported that 80% of the prisoners in the United States of America were once truants and that the percentage of juvenile offenders who started as truants is increasing (Gale Research, 1998). Truancy is associated with subsequent marital and psychological problems in early adulthood and is a predictor of multiple problems (Fogelman & Hibbert, 1990:179). Malan (1972:144) also argues that the rate of truancy has negative implications for manpower development.

Problem analysis

The pre-scientific problem awareness

The researcher first witnessed incidences of truancy in the period 1990 to 1996, when she was the guidance counsellor at a secondary school in Pudumong in the North-West Province. One of the common truancy reduction measures used was to lock the school gates during lessons and open them during break and after school hours (researcher’s personal experience). Despite the limited impact on truancy reduction, the approach of locking gates is still common and evident in some secondary schools. The researcher found locked gates while visiting some of the schools in the Northern Cape Province. Gates were locked to prevent trespassing, especially by gangsters, to control late coming and to stop learners from dodging classes.

Since l997, individual cases of learners with attendance problems have been referred to the present researcher through the Education Support Service in the Francis Baard District of the Northern Cape Province. These learners were mostly adolescents in secondary schools. What became evident upon interviewing these learners was that truancy occurs over an extended period before it can be identified. Furthermore, other learners keep playing truant without being referred for counselling, and parents claim that they were unaware of their children’s truant behaviour. Some learners wearing school uniform could be seen roaming the streets during school hours.

Truancy continues to be one of the growing problems that educators identify amongst learners (Kwon Hoo, 2003). There are some initiatives that suggest that truancy causes concern in South African schools and that it is considered to be an issue that demands attention. For instance, the Truancy Reduction Project that was initiated at Mannenburg in the Western Cape (Fox, 2000) and charging a parent in Pretoria for not ensuring that a child attends school regularly, as stipulated in the South African Schools Act, 1996 (Act No. 84 of 1996) (Grey, 2000). In addition, one of the urgent activities that is listed in the Implementation Plan for Tirisano is to monitor attendance trends (Department of

Education, 2000:28). In the Northern Cape, the Member of the Executive Council for the Department of Education confronted truants and reprimanded some learners for being late for school (Monare, 2003).

Unlike in the past, schools in this country are currently admitting learners from all nationalities and language groups in line with the legislation (South African Schools Act, 1996). In some instances, this leads to the migration of learners to schools which were previously restricted for a particular racial group. Learners may attend any school, while some even travel long distances daily to attend schools away from home and might even go to those schools via the central business district (researcher’s personal experience).

Attempts are made to ensure that learners attend school regularly. Various systems and procedures are in place at schools to record attendance. In South Africa, all schools are compelled to record the attendance of learners in class registers on a daily basis. Schools are at liberty to devise additional measures for keeping and monitoring attendance records and certain schools do "spot checks" in order to track absence during lessons. Despite these recording and monitoring procedures, learners continue to play truant on an almost daily basis.

The observations and experiences stated above stimulated further thinking and questions regarding truancy. For instance, one may ask why learners are unwilling to attend school regularly. Another question is about the accuracy of class registers. Records reflected on class registers remain questionable since they do not specify whether the absence was authorised or not. There is also a failure to acknowledge that learners may leave school after having been marked as being present on class registers.

As stated earlier, schools in South Africa are no longer racially segregated. A change in the racial composition of learners suggests that another perspective or picture of attendance, and truancy in particular, is needed. Thus, further research is needed to find out whether or not there are any changes in the pattern of truancy. It appears that the

circumstances around the phenomenon of truancy are generally not well understood. A lack of proper understanding may lead to poor management of truancy.

Exploring the problem

Incidence and nature of truancy

(a) South Africa

In the study conducted by Malan (1972:144), 2 738 out of 69 908 pupils were identified by their teachers as truants. It is important to mention that this figure may actually have been higher, given the fact that registers do not always provide reliable data on absences (Masithela, 1992:45) and that learners can play truant without being caught. Masithela (1992:33) observed that learners tend to miss lessons during the first and second periods, as well as during the last five periods. The tendency of missing certain lessons towards the end of the school day shows that some form of "hidden truancy" is prevalent, and that pupils can be marked present in the register but fail to attend all lessons (ibid:45). On the other hand, they may come late and be marked absent or be somewhere on the school premises not attending certain lessons or periods, but still be marked as being present on the class registers. Smith, P.A. (1996:30) also argues that learners continue to play truant, but acknowledges that his sample was composed of Afrikaans and English-speaking learners only.

More researchers became interested in the phenomenon of truancy in recent years. In this regard, a team of researchers conducted a survey that focused on the roles played by teachers, peers and parents in truancy, as well as the truants’ perceptions of the relevance of their schooling (Mashiane, 1997:4). This group study appears to bridge the gap of limited information on truancy that Smith, P.A. (1996:82) identified. This research further indicates a tendency of increasing truancy rates in higher standards (Mashiane 1997:57) and therefore confirms similar claims by Howe (1995:30). Some of the studies conducted in South Africa suggest that truancy does occur, but are less clear about "hidden truancy", and, therefore, the picture of the nature of truancy remains incomplete. Furthermore, the applicability of the previous studies may be limited to the previous era

and their relevance or validity in terms of a transformed education system could also be limited.

(b) Some overseas countries

Most of the research conducted abroad seems to provide information regarding the nature and extent of truancy in secondary schools. Results of a study conducted at a school in London from 1985 to1987 revealed that 70% of the sampled pupils admitted truanting during the three-year period (Stoll, 1990:22). In the study that involved nine secondary schools, 66% of the 765 fifth-year pupils admitted truanting (ibid). Figures on truancy in 150 English secondary schools revealed that 31% of pupils in years 10 and 11 admitted that they played truant or skipped lessons (O’Keefe & Stoll, 1995:12).

Gray and Jesson (1990:25) report about the major national survey results of truancy in English secondary schools. According to this study, 23% of all fifth-year pupils were involved in truant behaviour and they were less likely to stay on in full-time education. Furthermore, schools facing serious problems of truancy tend to be in the inner city rather than in other areas (ibid). On the other hand, Collins (1998:26) reports that absentee rates vary between schools in the London Education Authority.

Munn and Johnstone (1992:4) found that out of a sample of 50 Scottish secondary schools, 18% of the pupils (11% in June and 7% in November) were classified as truants and were mostly from the senior years. These figures exclude truants within the school day, as "14 schools reported that they did not keep period attendance records" (ibid).

Truancy has long been a subject for research in various parts of the USA. According to Nelson (1972:98), 64% of the 591 students surveyed identified themselves as class truants. Learners habitually play truant each day in Los Angeles, Pittsburg and Milwaukee (Black, 1996:33).

Bos, Ruiters and Visscher (1992:392) found that the average rate of truancy in 36 schools in the four Dutch cities studied was 4.4% and that truancy increases with the level of the class in almost all schools.

Some researchers further indicate that truancy does not necessarily mean missing the whole day of school, but found that it could be in the form of missing a part of a day or particular lesson (Kilpatrick, 1998:31; Reid, 1999:91).

Factors associated with truancy

(a) South African research

The factors associated with truancy are many and varied. Research reveals that the interaction of individuals' characteristics, family circumstances, socio-economic and school factors causes truancy among children in South Africa (Smith, P.A., 1996:49).

As far as school factors are concerned, educators are said to cause truancy by modelling inappropriate behaviour such as dodging classes (Masithela, 1992:33) and by not behaving in an exemplary manner (Mashiane, 1997:76). This suggests that educators do play a role in causing truancy. Peers may also serve as models in reinforcing undesirable behaviours amongst other learners. Khoza (1997:71) found that peers who are involved with truants often end up playing truant.

Another aspect of school that appears to cause truancy could be the learners’ perception of the relevance of the subjects taught to the world of work. According to Seerane (1997:83-85), some truants perceive their school subjects to be less important and they do not know what careers to follow after completing school.

It is notable that several variables are involved in the development of truant behaviour. One could ask why some learners attend school regularly and never miss school without valid reasons, while others do not. Malan (1972:149) argues that the factors contributing

to truancy are not the same for each learner because of the uniqueness of each individual. He further asserts that the extent to which an individual offers resistance to contributing factors may play a major role in the generation of truant behaviour.

(b) Studies conducted abroad

When seen from a psychological viewpoint, truancy may be symptomatic of learners who are insecure and have low academic achievement levels and low self-esteem. Lewis (l995:37) states that attendance difficulties may broadly result from a combination of "pull" and "push" factors. Pull factors are personal and social aspects that "pull" a learner out of school. The pull factors may be related to the psychological indices mentioned by Reid (2002:11), such as maladjustment, a lower general level of self-esteem and academic self-concept, anxiety and lower career aspirations.

Factors that "push" learners away from school include academic and classroom aspects such as inapproachability of the teaching staff, incomprehensible teaching style and inappropriate classroom management. Other factors relating to the school and the classroom include bullying, the curriculum, boring lessons (Reid, 1999:91), teachers' humiliating remarks (Porteus, Clacherty, Mdiya, Pelo, Matsai, Qwabe and Donald 2000:11), poor record-keeping and school organisation (Bimler & Kirkland, 2001:90; Coldman, 1995:29).

According to Pappas (l996:1), truancy is often symptomatic of family dysfunction, since the parents of truants tend to be permissive, undisciplined and unavailable. Some authors believe that truancy is associated with a poor socio-economic background, including poverty, poor housing and unemployment (Bell, Rosen and Dynlacht, l994:204; Tyerman, 1958:222). Some researchers state that there is a link between truancy and delinquent behaviour (Collins, 1998:38; Brown, 1998:298-299; Reid, 1999:25).

Truancy differentiated from school phobia

There is a need to distinguish between truancy and school phobia. The concept "school phobia" describes a learner who is unwilling to attend school and stays at home with the knowledge of parents (Wicks and Nelson, 2000:123). A learner's problem often starts with a vague complaint or reluctance to attend school and progresses to total refusal to go to school. Blagg (l992:121) asserts that school phobia may be induced by fear-arousing aspects of school, such as fear of failure caused by anxiety about meeting the standards. Fear may also be related to worries about the health and welfare of parents (Blagg, 1992:123). On the other hand, a learner who plays truant misses the whole school day or lessons without the knowledge of parents or caregivers. Furthermore, a truant tends to be involved in various forms of anti-social behaviour (Blagg, 1992:121).

Milner and Blyth (1999:18) acknowledge the difficulties involved in studying the prevalence and pattern of truancy and in comparing current and past school attendance or absence. The difficulties are partly compounded by the variations in the definition of truancy itself (Boyd, l999:22; Gabb, 1997:2) and the multifaceted nature of truancy (Edward and Malcolm, 2002:1; Reid, l999:17).

The problems associated with studies on truancy should, however, not prevent further research from being conducted. Solutions should be found, or the causes at least eliminated, because truancy is regarded as a serious problem with socio-economic implications. A preliminary review of the literature reveals that truancy is a major problem for schools and society, and a most powerful predictor of juvenile delinquent behaviour (Van Petegem, 1994:272; Wiehe, 2000).

Reid (2002:2) maintains that the amount of money spent on truancy reduction initiatives proves the extent of truancy. The Northern Cape Education Department recognised the negative effects of truancy and the importance of regular attendance for the improvement of matriculation results when envisaging appointing truancy officers (Diamond Fields Advertiser, 12 April 2002).

Statement of the problem

Data on the extent and nature of truancy in schools are often based on information obtained from class registers. This information may be inadequate or almost incomplete and limits the understanding of the phenomenon, thus making it difficult to develop appropriate intervention strategies. More insight on how truancy manifests is needed to provide a base on which to suggest, plan and develop effective intervention strategies. Therefore, further research is needed to enable education officials, schools, parents and other professionals to manage learners with attendance difficulties more efficiently. This study serves to bridge the information gap regarding the nature of truancy and to provide a picture of the life world of truants in secondary schools.

Aims of the research

General aim

The aim of the research is to describe truancy in general, as stated in the literature, and to conduct an empirical study in order to determine how truancy behaviour manifests in secondary schools and what the life world of truants looks like. The findings can then be used to inform and guide future practice.

Specific aim

The specific aim of the study is to gather information that will be used to guide the whole school community, educational psychologists, social workers and other stakeholders in terms of the relevant interventional approaches and procedures that can be used for reducing truancy.

In order to realise the above aims, the following questions are set to direct the research:

⦁ What are the extent and degree of truancy in terms of the frequency and number of learners involved?

⦁ What is the pattern, type or nature of truancy?

⦁ Which are the factors contributing to truancy (i.e. predisposing and perpetuating factors)?

⦁ Which learners are more likely to play truant?

⦁ Where do truants go when not at school or in class?

⦁ What measures are used to monitor and manage truancy?

Research method

The study will comprise two methods, namely, a literature study and an empirical investigation. A study of the literature will derive information on studies about poor school attendance and procedures employed to manage or reduce truancy from books, research articles, journals and other resources.

A quantitative research design will be used in the empirical investigation. This investigation aims to gather data by means of a questionnaire that will be given to all learners in Grade 10 in three randomly selected secondary schools.

Demarcation of research

Due to financial and time constraints, the present research is confined to the secondary schools in Francis Baard, one of the four districts of the Northern Cape Education Department. This district is located towards the south of the Northern Cape Province. All schools are situated in Kimberley, the province’s capital city. A list of all secondary schools was compiled to allow for the random selection of three schools, which form part of this study. This sample was mainly chosen on the basis of cost implications and accessibility.

Explanation of concepts

In this section, a number of concepts that are relevant to this research are defined.


Reids (l999:1) asserts that the term "truancy" is often misused and can be applied both generically and with a local meaning. In the different parts of Great Britain, truancy is known as "dodging", "skipping off", "mitching", "skiving", "bunking-off", and "going missing"”, respectively. Whitney (l994:49) defines truancy as "absence that has not been authorised by the school and where leave has not been given or approved". Another definition is provided by Collins (l998:2), who states that truancy is about pupils who have been registered with a school but identified as not attending school when the law says they should. This definition includes absences from a particular lesson or lessons, known as "post-registration truancy" (Gabbs, 1994:5; Stoll, l990:23).

The concept blanket truancy refers to absence from the whole school day, which is usually reflected on the class register, while post-registration truancy occurs when the learner is marked present but fails to turn up at a lesson or lessons (Stoll, 1990:23).

In this research, the term "truancy" is broadly defined as unauthorised absence from school. The definition is adopted with the assumption that absence with the knowledge and permission of the school and parents or guardian does not constitute truancy. Since the study seeks to explore the type of truancy as manifested at secondary schools, both concepts of truancy (blanket and post-registration) are relevant and will be investigated.

A truant

A truant is a "child aged 6 – 17 years old who absents himself or herself from school without a legitimate reason and without permission of his or her parents or the school official" (Schaefer and Millman, l981:335). This definition is accepted, although with a slight modification in order to accommodate some secondary-school learners in South

Africa whose age ranges may be above 17 years. For the purpose of this research, a truant refers to a learner who, after being registered at a school, absents himself or herself from school or lessons without a legitimate reason or permission from parents or the school official.

Secondary school

A school that admits or registers and educate learners in Grades 8 – 12 (i.e. the old Standards 5 – 10) is known as a secondary school.

Life world

In this research, the term "life world" refers to the psychological context that is made up of elements such as interpersonal aspects, the family, school and the broader community. According to this definition, the life world involves the personal and external world of the learner. The personal world refers to intrinsic factors. The external world is made up of the broader educational systems, the home environment and the community where the child spends his time when not at school. Relevant intervention strategies would be easier to suggest if the contextual issues related to the phenomenon under investigation are understood.

Research programme

The research comprises five chapters, as follows:


In this chapter, the background information on the seriousness and implications of truancy are discussed. The chapter also includes an analysis of the problem, the problem statement, aims of the study, description of the research method, demarcation of the study and definition of the concepts.


Chapter 2 entails a review of the literature on types of truancy and the causes of truancy or contributing factors in different countries, including South Africa. Different approaches that the various countries and schools use to manage truancy will also be discussed.


This chapter deals with research designs and methods. A discussion of the research problem, the aim of the empirical investigation, the research tools used in the study and the selection of the sample will be included. Details of the compilation and administration of questionnaires as well as an analysis of data will be presented.


In this chapter, the results of questionnaires will be presented. The results will be analysed to find answers to the research questions.


The chapter entails a summary of the research findings, conclusions and recommendations. A summary of the results from the literature study and the limitations of the study will be included.


This chapter focuses on the background and analysis of the problem, as well as the aims of the study. An attempt will be made to explain the research method used, the demarcation of the study, relevant concepts and planned programmes of the research.

The next chapter will contain the review of the literature on the types of truancy, factors contributing to truancy behaviour, the rate and extent of truancy and the strategies used to manage truancy.




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