Truants lured to class with load of Garbage

By Mark Austin

SCHOOL has never been so cool. Brent council has recruited Garbage, one of the country's hottest pop groups, to stop pupils playing truant by giving them copies of the band's latest album as a reward for good attendance in the classroom.

Garbage, fronted by singer Shirley Manson were approached after officials asked pupils what it would take to make them attend school regularly. When the children said Garbage, the band obliged with their just-released second album, as well as T-shirts, singles, posters and stickers.

"We were intrigued and it surprised us," said a Garbage spokesman. "It is a wonderful vision of a council worker dangling copies of the album at the school gates in a bid to get kids to come in."

Officials have introduced several schemes, including on-the-spot CDs for persistent truants if they turn up and special rewards for children who achieve their attendance targets.

"Getting children to go to school has become much more of a science than it used to be," said Maurice Walsh, education welfare officer at Brent council, who introduced the scheme.

"We have to go right down to the grassroots level and I have a network of informants in the schools who tell me what is the most desirable item that the children could have."

When his informants told him that the new Garbage album was hot property, he wrote to the band asking for help.

In the letter, he emphasised that the merchandise would not be used as a "bribe" but "as a parallel alternative used in conjunction with the established methods instigated by my department".

The council has been using a similar technique for the past three years and has approached football clubs, artists and magazines for incentives for errant school pupils.

Many children in the borough are supporters of Arsenal and Walsh noted a big increase in school attendance when the club sent signed photographs of the team and match tickets.

At Wembley high school, truancy figures have halved in the three years since the sweeteners were introduced.

However, not all experts welcome the scheme. "This is a short-term answer to a long-term problem," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "These truants are very good at playing the system and they will play this one as well. We have got to get truants back into schools for much better reasons."

Although Brent's idea is not new, the rewards are more lavish than most. Teachers in Middlesbrough introduced a similar scheme two years ago in which reformed truants were given McDonald's hamburgers, sweets and bookmarks.

For Garbage, the affair has a sweet smell of irony. "Most record companies pay agencies considerable sums to target schoolchildren so that they buy these albums," said the spokesman.