Rocque, Jennings, Piquero, Ozkan, and Farrington (2017) recently performed a study with the title “The importance of school attendance: Findings from Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development on the life-course effects of truancy”, which was published in Crime & Delinquency, 63(5), 592 – 612. The critical appraisal of their journal article is based on guidelines issued by the University of Portsmouth in the context of a doctorate program. The study is selected because it is within an area of existing research interest.
The study constitutes an attempt to extend Dr. David P. Farrington’s previous findings of the effects of truancy on later life course (Farrington, 1996) until the middle adulthood, stably based on the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD). CSDD is a significant database for researching offending through the life course. It refers to the data of 411 South London males from an urban working-class area, which were collected in 1960-1961 when most of the boys were at the ages of 8-9. The purpose of CSDD was the following up of this sample in the course of their life, and the longitudinal research of several hypotheses about the onset and the development of delinquency. CSDD was inspected by Dr. Donald J. West until 1980 and then by Dr. David P. Farrington (West, 1969, 1982; West & Farrington, 1973, 1977). CSDD and its subsequent reports offer some data on schooling behavior of the sampled boys, including their truancy, which had been reported by the teachers or self-reported.
In this research, the respected authors compared truants with non-truants at the ages of 32, 48 and 50. The primary dependent variable was “criminal offending”, which was measured for both non-violent and violent offences with data from the existing criminal records (convictions). All the dependent variables (i.e., “drinking problem”, “mental health problem”, “poor accommodation”, and others) were described as “later life outcomes”, and they concerned adverse conditions or experiences. The explanatory variable was the already known truancy of 116 boys up to the age of 14 (Farrington, 1996). The authors believed that the additional control of the other childhood individual risk factors (IRF) and environmental risk factors (ERF) would enable them to examine whether there is an independent link between truancy and these later life outcomes. Alternatively, whether truancy should be considered as a symptom of an underlying problematic behavior (Farrington, 1996). They created two indexes, where they used 12 IRF (the low school attainment, daring disposition, small stature/height, low non-verbal IQ, and others) and 10 ERF (parental harsh attitude/discipline, teenage mother, siblings’ behavioral problems, and others). In their analysis, they described the dependent variables (also considering the missing data) with descriptive statistics. Then they compared the truants with non-truants to find the differences in these variables, and they measured the statistical significance of the mentioned differences. Finally, they used a binary logistic regression to control IRF and ERF.
Their results mainly suggest that truants differ significantly from non-truants on all the important measures of conviction, as well as on the childhood risk factors. The 65.1% of truants have been convicted up to the age of 50 for any crime compared with 30.3% of non-truants since the 65.1% of truants have been convicted up to the same age for non-violent crimes compared with 29.2% of non-truants. As for the violent crimes, the authors reported that 16.5% of truants and the 7.2% of non-truants have convictions up to the age of 50. The truants scored significantly higher on IRF (35.55%) and ERF (36.92%) compared with the non-truants (IRF 21.94%, ERF 19.69%). Finally, the authors found that truancy can predict any convictions up to the age of 50 and any “non-violent convictions” independently, but it cannot do so for “violent convictions”. All the results are presented in tables and figures, which enable the reader to be informed of the most important findings. Based on these results, the authors suggest that people with more IRF and ERF are more likely to become truants. Further, that truants are experiencing many adverse outcomes during their adult lives, to which truancy is related.
The authors themselves recognize some critical limitations, which mostly respond to the credibility of their study. In this instance, they reported that they are not convinced that there is a causative link between truancy and later life outcomes. Importantly, the trustworthiness of the research is affected due to the lack of generalisability (Muncie, 2004). The study refers to a small sample of British boys of South London in 1960/1970, in different socioeconomic environments, the truancy of whom had been recorded up to the age of 14 (not for their rest school or work life). Therefore, the applicability of the results in different gender, country, ethnicity or era is doubtful.
The generalisability issue also exists with the use of CSDD, which is used for such long time. It is presumed that during this time the individual and social conditions change (Case & Haines, 2009). This observation poses ethical questions, as to the extent of the time for which a database can be used for research purposes, and the duration of treating the same group of people as a sample. It would be an additional issue of ethicality as to whether CSDD itself affects the later life outcomes, by retaining the childish stigma of “truant” within the time and treating it as a negative precursor to not contemporaneous delinquency.
The viability of research is its ability to survive in the specific research area. The authors perceived or used “educational attainment” as a condition opposite to “truancy” and able to lead to the opposite results (if truancy affects negatively later life outcomes, then education attainment will affect them positively). The title of the article itself includes the “importance of school attendance”, and it creates the impression that a positive link is to be found through the research. It seems relevant to note that it cannot be concluded, through this research, that educational attainment may affect the rates of delinquency positively, and that the study is not substantially relevant to a link between educational attainment and delinquency. In this instance, the viability of the study in this specific research area is doubtful. However, irrespectively of the lack of substantial viability, the study was prepared by leading authors. For this reason, it is expected to have a kind of pragmatic viability, compared with other studies of 2016-2017 of other authors, on this same complex issue of “school-to-prison pipeline”. This expectation gives a good reason to mention that Farrington’s CSDD series of studies offer a combination of American and British research trends. It seems that “school-to-prison pipeline” had been historically introduced to English criminological literature by West and Farrington (1973) and the CSDD itself. The preexisting study of Ferguson (1952) on a sample from Glasgow did not focus on school behavior at all.
The said combination is somewhat extended in this study because of the cooperation of very experienced researchers and authors, which evidently contributes to the increase of the intelligibility of the study. The flow of the literature review is smooth. The standard patterns of academic language which were used for the explanation and communication of the methodology and the results create a very good comprehensiveness even for non-native English speakers.
The originality of this new research is limited to the extent to which CSDD is used to examine the possible effects of truancy until the age of 50 and to the additional (limited) control of IRF and ERF. However, the real meaning of the research findings is not that truancy follows up people during their whole lives or that “once truant always truant”. Many times, the titles and the abstracts of some studies, which are proposed for peer-reviewed journals, have an increased fabricated commerciality; they remind headlines from newspapers which tries to be more attractive than the content of the texts. The authors do not exclude truancy as an essential indicator which shall be treated accordingly. However, their research is still inconclusive as to the characterization of truancy as something more than an alarming sing, among other indicators which may exist is school behaviors. Beyond the initial expectations of the reader, the authors indeed cannot move beyond the conclusion of the previous CSDD study on truancy (Farrington, 1996).
The above comments about the incidental commerciality also relate to the way in which the literature review is developed, in purpose to set the new research question through the existing research findings. It starts from the dropout literature (paragraph 1), it takes for granted that truancy is an indicator for dropout (paragraph 2), and considering that dropout is associated with adverse life outcomes, it hypothesizes that truancy also does so. This indirectness (between truancy and adverse life outcomes) could be imposed due to the verbal immediacy (Wiener & Mehrabian, 1967). However, it can also be perceived that there is a lack of contextual immediacy, or that the sources of the article are remote enough from the substance of the topic. In addition to the said lack of contextual immediacy, the dependent variables are formed negatively (i.e., “poor accommodation” instead of “accommodation” or “drinking problem” instead of “drinking behavior”). While the authors search for something negative, which is presumed to be already empirically founded (even though it is not well-founded), the impression of the reader is that there are some psychosocial (confirmation) biases in this research, which affect its immediacy. Namely that the authors deterministically confirm the stability of their findings from the CSDD, and the continuing importance of CSDD in the longitudinal developmental research (Pitts, 2003; Armstrong, 2004). These biases are possibly the reason for which the respected authors themselves cannot accept their results as being convincing enough. What may be missing is the natural ability to control all the changing life factors (individual or social) that could intervene and affect the sample, in this problematic route from childhood truancy to adult delinquency.
The effective communication of the authors with the readers becomes obscured by the persistent neutrality of their philosophical standpoint. It seems that the authors take back what they give to the reader. Even though they prepare the reader and their study indeed offers some results which may indicate a possible causative relationship between truancy and later life outcomes, at the same time, they point out that the establishment of such link was not their objective. The preservation of the researchers may be related to their need to continue their work on CSDD, irrespectively of the production of extraordinary results. Of course, the researchers do not intend to demonize truancy and impose school attendance as a therapeutic intervention. But it seems entirely reasonable that the establishment of an original link between educational attainment and delinquency shall consider the content or quality of the educational material. In the contemporary world, the kind of “educated offenders”, who commit financial, religious, political, internet and other crimes, which presuppose the existence of specific or extended education, cannot be ignored, and it is probably not unknown to the experienced researchers. Truancy or the disengagement from a specific educational environment at the age of 14 does not exclude the engagement of such “truants” with a different educational environment. On the other hand, school attendance (therefore typical non-truancy) does not always mean educational attainment concerning the engagement with the good knowledge (which in turn would be useful in the later life); some individual or environmental factors may cause what could be called “mental absenteeism” from the school. Further, some knowledge may be not useful or helpful for some life conditions.
The authors evidently do not set and accomplish a clear objective, which can reflect a clear philosophical standpoint. In contrast, the way in which they perceive the nature of society and the dynamics of time through the use CDSS creates some concern at the ontological level. Notwithstanding the number of limitations noticed, concerning credibility, ethicality, viability, originality, intelligibility, and immediacy, a fair conclusion could be that this study at least could contribute to the scientific dialogue about the validity of “school-to-prison pipeline”.
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