Why truancy was not a good thing

Truancy has always been a feature of school life.

Attendance at school became compulsory in 1880. A new law stated that children between the ages of 5 and 10 must attend school and no child under 13 could leave without reaching an acceptable standard. Teachers’ salaries depended on examination results and attendance. As a result, the Log Books for the local schools record some fascinating details about why children didn’t go to school.

School log book extracts

How about these snippets from the 3 North Malvern schools?

1865: ‘Several of the boys away from school carrying a May-pole about the streets of Malvern.  I saw several of the parents at dinnertime, they said it was the custom of the place.’

9th May 1867: ‘Only 20 children present because of a circus on the common in the afternoon.’

27th March 1871: ‘Many absentees – parents do not seem to take any interest in their children’s advancement – one kept her girl away to help carry a small parcel into Malvern, a distance of only half a mile.’

28th March 1871: ‘Only 30 girls, most of the school having gone to the burial of a child who had been scalded to death.’

Mill Lane School, now Malvern Parish School
Mill Lane School, Malvern c 1880

…and from Mill Lane School (now Malvern Parish School):

29th June 1887: ‘On inquiring the cause of Wm. Cuttings’ absence his mother says, “as he has passed the 4th standard, she shall keep him at home as often as she likes”.’

5th Sept. 1889: ‘Several gone hop-picking today’.

Other events that kept children away from school include:

  • having a haircut; birthday celebration; oversleeping; no shoes or coat
  • Ledbury Fox and Hounds; the annual horticultural show
  • Poor weather such as snow and floods, kept many children who lived in Cradley, Leigh and even Bromyard, away for many days
  • Illnesses, such as measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox and whooping cough often meant the schools had to close for several days, and in some cases several weeks, in an effort to contain the spread of disease
  • Farming usually took precedence over education; hop picking, potato planting and haymaking all relied on child labour through to the end of the 19th century


Children were punished for playing truant by being kept in after school.  Some parents were fined if their child failed to attend school, or the child was placed in another school.  Mrs Dobbs, headmistress of North Malvern girls’ school, 1871 -75, resorted to harsher methods of enforcing attendance and punctuality:  ‘Have found it necessary to introduce the punishment of the cane for those who come in late, so many lately at 20 minutes and half past nine and the same after 2 in the afternoon.’  Only severe punishment, carried out by the head teachers, was recorded in the Log Book.

However, in March 1874 complaints were made at North Malvern School about pupil teachers who were hitting children or pushing them against the stove so that they were burned.

Other punishments involved ‘persuading’ the child to confess his or her absence in front of the school.  An entry in Mill Lane School Log Book illustrates this:

11th September 1884: ‘John Edw. Lewis ran out of the school this morning because his teacher told him to stand (instead of sit) for carelessness.  He will not be admitted again without promising before the whole school never to be guilty of such conduct again.’


To encourage regular attendance, prizes were introduced.

Attendance medals awarded to Malvern children at the beginning of the 20th century
Two school attendance medals

At North Malvern, in 1874, the first prize was a sovereign (a gold coin worth £72 today), and 59 other pupils who had made over 300 attendances during the year, received half a crown (worth £9 today).  By the early 1900s, the County Council awarded Attendance Medals to children.

Another way of reducing truancy was to provide a school holiday.  The elementary school in Malvern Wells agreed to have half-day holidays to coincide with fetes held by local organisations. Other days off related to harvesting, potato planting and even blackberry picking. The vicar who taught at Mill lane School made his feelings quite clear about this sort of holiday:

25 July 1870: ‘The Vicar does not wish the school to have a holiday at the next Review of the Volunteers on Malvern Common owing to the amount of immorality said to have been carried on last week.’

Further Reading:

Holt, Gill, Malvern Voices: Childhood, An Oral History of the 20th Century (2001) available at Malvern Museum

Holt, Gill, Malvern Voices: Schools, An Oral History of the 20th Century (2002) available at Malvern Museum