He was one of the most unforgettable figures ever to walk the corridors of our primary school: a square-built man with a loud bark of a voice, who took no nonsense but had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. His talent at finding kids playing hooky was uncanny, suggesting that he’d missed more than a few days in the classroom himself when he was a boy and knew exactly where they would be lurking. When not prowling the streets, arcades, beaches and woodlands of East Lothian in search of skivers, Jock was never happier than in the Lammermuir hills, with fishing rod or gun in hand. More than a few dodgers were found filling jars with frog spawn or hunting for rabbits.

Looking back, the reasons for skipping class in those days were pretty simple: loathing of being trapped behind a desk, or a family who saw no point in insisting their children scored perfect attendance, since the life that lay ahead for them required no exam passes. Or, in my case, the dreaded annual gymnastics competition, when I would invariably come down with flu.

That the education department employed truancy officers like Jock suggests that, even then, it was not a negligible problem. At the time, however, I remember little consternation. Even the culprits Jock rounded up and returned to the school gates - if he didn’t drag them in by the ear, that was nevertheless the impression he gave - could not help but like him. For them, the game of cat and mouse was part of the fun.

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How times change. Recent figures from the Commission on School Reform showing that almost one in three school students misses on average a day a fortnight, has prompted shock and soul searching. Compared with pre-pandemic levels, truancy is now rocketing, with one in eight missing a day a week, and two in five taking a day off fortnightly - an extraordinary figure when totted up across the year. There’s no denying that Covid lockdowns saw a marked shift in attitudes towards school. Before Covid, a handful would take their kids off during term time for a family holiday, but they tended to be the brass-necked exception. Now, there are far fewer scruples about the loss of several days’ lessons for the sake of cheaper flights.

Such disdain is part of a sea change in perceptions. In too many homes school is no longer viewed as an absolutely essential component of a child’s upbringing, as important as having three decent meals a day. Instead, it is deemed an optional extra. Those lonely months spent at arm’s length from teachers and classmates stretched the contract between school and child to breaking point. Disillusioned or stressed parents saw it as confirmation that going to school was no longer critical, and certainly not a legal and moral obligation. More alarmingly still, being confined in the house fostered intense insecurity and anxiety among some young people. After getting out of routine, and in some cases falling behind with their studies, they grew reluctant to face the challenges, both intellectual and social, of attending school.

Evidence that fear and misery partly underlie these figures is suggested by the fact that absence rates rise as children grow older. As teachers will tell you, some of their pupils’ confidence was badly knocked during the pandemic. Compounding the problem is a cohort that is increasingly being described as feral. Having missed out on discipline, support and structure at a crucial time in their education - often at the point of transition between primary and secondary - these youngsters are now hard to reel in. Not only are they often absent, but they can be disruptive, causing headaches for teachers and intimidating their classmates. Bullying, clearly, is a major factor behind some kids avoiding school.

None of this is new, but the scale of it is unprecedented. I remember being startled when Nicola Sturgeon pinned her reputation as First Minister on how well educational standards would improve on her watch. It seemed a brave - indeed rash - commitment. Since then, the first criticism unhappy voters make of the SNP’s record is the state of our education system, which they believe is creaking. Yet while there are aspects of our schools that are the responsibility of politicians - funding, curriculum, infrastructure - for which they must rightly answer, perhaps the most important are essentially beyond their control.

By the time children reach school at the age of five, their future is to some extent already written. Intelligence is not the arbiter of how well a child will do. It is what happens at home that determines their progress, both in terms of academic achievement and emotional well-being.

At root, the issue of truancy lies at the doors of parents: those whose children are out of control and victimising others, or those who care so little about their child’s future that they are unconcerned when they take days off and fall behind.

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Ultimately, the health of our education system depends on the quality of parenting. It sounds simple. What parent or carer doesn’t want their child to thrive? Yet you’d be staggered by the lack of interest some show. A relative, who briefly taught art in one of Glasgow’s more deprived areas, held a weekend painting class for primary-age children. She has never forgotten seeing one of the kids rush out proudly at the end of the class and hand his brightly-coloured picture to his dad. He took one look at it, ripped it up and chucked it in the nearest bin.

As much of a child’s education takes place in the home as in the class. I’m not talking about tutoring on the periodic table or help with writing assignments. What I mean is an environment which takes learning seriously: from pre- and early school age, when reading together becomes an unmissable highpoint of the day, to the stressful exams years, when parents do everything possible to help their child find the space and peace they need to study. Not to mention providing a vital boost to their confidence as required.

Raising children is the hardest but most rewarding job in the world, requiring constant attention and commitment. Sadly, the number of empty chairs in the classroom are symptomatic of a troubling problem: parents who in many respects, like their offspring, are also absent without leave.