• By Ernest Underhill
  • Posted on Tuesday 18th March, 2008

Going five rounds with the National Center for School engagement

I love coming over from Great Britain to these sorts of events and to hear the world 'experts' go on about the latest revolutions taking place in the field. I then sit back and think about how wrong everyone is and how much better everything would be if only they would listen to me (why don't they I ask?). So forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but when I attended the pre-conference session hosted by the National Center for School Engagment (NCSE) I thought I would be in my element! Turns out I didn't even need to unleash my general murmurings of discontent, the problems were obvious to everyone. Round One: The Director of the centRE (these people can't even spell) started off by saying that the Centre should probably be called the National Centre for Truancy. I thought the concept of school engagement was about how all children engage with school, feel valued and want to learn (not just the tail who disengage)? So they don't know what engagement is. Round one to Ernie. Round Two: And of course, if they don't know what school engagement is then they certainly don't know how to measure it. This was beautifully illustrated by one of the team describing this issue. We were told that there are three central components to engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement (or as others described it, the 'three A's of engagement': Attendance, Attachment and Achievement). We were then told that they've had such inconsistencies in the reliability and validity of instruments measuring this, that its probably a load of rubbish, and the holistic concept of school engagement may not even exist. Round two to Ernie.Round Three: Related to this, I thought the purpose of the conference was all about how to improve 'outcomes' for children, but everyone was obsessed with the administrative outputs of truancy, service referals and court orders. I thought we were here to learn how to prevent these sorts of things happening in the first place? OK, well I admit there is of course a focus on treatment too (MST, MTFC, ETC) and the various panel members did point to some preventative programmes that also help keep kids in school, but Ernie still wins the round on account of NCSE's obsession with outputs, not outcomes.Round Four: Despite this, data was presented on the predictive power of truancy rates. For example, if a child occasionally skipped class then they are about 5 times more likely to commit crime and take drugs. For chronic truants this rises to over 20 times more likely. (For drug use they found that truancy accounted for 97% of the variance - as my hero Victor Meldrew would say, "I don't believe it" - this is the sort of linear relationship that would make most researchers wet themselves with excitement). Aside from my skepticism at times, this was powerful stuff. I'm loathed to say it, but round four to NCSE. Ouch, that hurt.Round Five: So whose responsibility is it to keep children engaged with school (or at the very least, stop them disengaging)? Now I have to say that some wise words were said here (but they took them right out of my mouth I tell you). A family court judge told us that the main reasons why children play truant are due to being bullied, conflict and stress at home, substance abuse by those around them and a poor sense of being valued at school. All of these factors are not the fault of the child (but too often we blame and punish them). The blame and responsibility sits with the family, the school and community. So truancy is everyones business and if you want to reduce it you need to work with these underlying causes. Crumbs. Another round to NCSE (it must be the jet-lag). So I think I'll tactically retreat and hold on to my victory unless anyone else cares to share their thoughts? Stay tuned for my next rant.

Back to Blogs