Was truancy a problem in the past? Read on to find out.
Today, quite rightly, consistent attendance by pupils is seen as one of the key benchmarks of a school’s success. Thankfully, attendance at Mearns Academy remains very strong with some young people going through school for six years with a 100% attendance record. The school is currently averaging an overall attendance figure of 95%. However, especially in the early years of secondary education in the Mearns there was always likely to be disruption to pupil’s attending school. This was primarily due to factors: bad weather, lack of transport, illness and involvement by pupils in the harvest.
Inspection reports about the school during most of the last century frequently lamented the poor levels of attendance. This of course affected pupil’s performance in exams and tests. In times when the school received grants according to the level of pupil’s competence, this was clearly a concern.
It would certainly appear to be the case that winters in the past were harsher. Frequent references in the school log books are made to the effect of storms:
24 March 1899: Great storm prevailing – school dismissed for the week and attendance cancelled.
22 January 1945: Only one pupil present today as all roads are still snowbound.
30 January 1946: There has been a recurrence of the storm. Attendance has suffered – very few pupils in this week.
15 February 1963: Severe blizzards continue – only 8 pupils attended this week.
Even in very recent times (for example the winters of 2010 and 2011) the school is still affected by bad weather but with better communication systems and transport the impact tends to be more short-lived. With regard to transport, today bus transport is provided for pupils living outwith the Laurencekirk area. Previously of course, many pupils either walked to school or came by bicycle. Indeed if a pupil lived more than three miles from school the authorities would provide a bike free of charge for travel to school. Another historic figure on a bike was the janitor, otherwise known as ‘the whipper in’. He would often be charged with riding to the homes of reluctant students to persuade them to follow him back to school!
However, the most single contributory factor that challenged attendance at school was and still is illness. As late as 1953 the school record of infectious and contagious diseases encountered included scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, mumps and chicken pox. Persistently as well, influenza visited the school. The school log books record frequently clear testimony to the impact this had:
Nov 18, 1912: School closed for two weeks owing to the prevalence of scarlet fever – this by order of the medical officers.
Nov 25, 1918 Because of influenza school will be closed until 2 December
June 15, 1920 The school will require careful disinfecting during the vacation after the measles epidemic this term.
Even after programmes of immunisation were introduced in the 1920’s and 1930’s epidemic diseases still took their toll. Tragically in 1934 for example three pupils died within a three week period – two of them from the same class and all did from influenza. In 1940 it was chicken pox that was prevalent, in 1948 mumps was the main concern and in the 1950’s polio was still a feared disease. Indeed in 1954 the school was closed from 28 Sept – 18 November because of this. Furthermore that year also saw the entire school close in December due to influenza.
It was of course the case that teachers as well as pupils suffered and school log books frequently refer to significant staff absences. Indeed former rector Mr William Lacy died from influenza whilst in service.
One other perennial irritant to head teachers trying to encourage attendance was the historic issue of pupils working on farms – especially at harvest time. As early as 1919 the rector commented:
‘The irregular attendance at this school is a serious matter – due to farm work quite a number of pupils have not attended school for two months’.
Similarly the log book entry for 15 September 1933 comments:
‘Farmers have commenced to lift the potato crop earlier than usual – attendance badly affected’.
The ‘tattie’ holidays remain a feature of the school calendar today. Last century however, the dates of the holidays were not set in advance – they would be c-confirmed by local farmers according to the state of the crop. ‘Holidays begin today at 4.00pm’ would be an announcement of good news to pupils, but a more trying situation for the head teacher! Indeed in 1897 it transpires that the whole school was dismissed without the headmaster’s knowledge. Similarly the 15 October 1948 school log book entry suggests the frustration of movable dates for holidays.
‘School should have returned today but holidays for potato lifting have been extended another week’.
One development that increased attendance at school was the raising of the school-leaving age. In 1947 it was raised to fifteen and in 1972 to sixteen. This was designed to ensure compulsory education was more complete – a sentiment not entirely shared by all pupils! For example George Thomson 2C, Age 14 when writing to the editor of the school magazine responded:
‘Like many boys of my age I am very much against having to attend school until I am fifteen. I feel it is a waste of time when I could be working myself and making my parent’s burden easier’.
Certainly as ever, preparation for the world of work is one of the school’s key duties and the adjustment of the curricular to meet this aspiration in a rapidly changing society remains a major challenge.