Judith is slumped on the sofa at the Youth Outreach Centre in Chai Wan. Dressed in a school uniform smelling of smoke, she exudes an air of teenage rebellion. 'If I am unhappy or I have had a late night, I will not go to school,' she says. Fifteen-year-old Judith is one of the territory's truants, living on the education system's fringes, still enrolled but teetering on the brink of dropping out. She started skipping school this year and already has been absent on six occasions; she sometimes misses three days in a row. The errant youth says she uses a fake medical certificate - bought for $15 from someone on Lam Tin Housing Estate - to explain her absences. 'I used to be happy going to school,' she says. 'My form position was 120 out of 300 students. Now I am too far behind. I don't understand the lessons any more and there is no one to teach me.' Judith first played truant after quarrelling with school friends. Raised in a single-parent family, she is temporarily staying at the Outreach centre while her widowed mother is in hospital. When she should be in school, Judith is hanging out with a loose group of dropouts and unemployed youths. 'Whoever wants to have fun can join,' she says. Group members spend their days wandering the streets, and their nights in pubs and karaoke clubs. Judith asks strangers for money when she has none. She sleeps at a friend's place or just walks the streets until dawn. Kai-hung is also a truant. He skips school several days each week, and last year alone he missed a total of two months. The 16-year-old says playing truant has become a habit and he now has little interest in most of his subjects, except for physical education and design and technology classes. 'It is boring at school,' says Kai-hung. 'There is nothing to do in class.' He admits his parents initially were very angry about his behaviour. 'But not any more. Now they think I am old enough to take responsibility for my actions.' Kai-hung's school notified his parents about the problem, deducted marks for conduct, asked him to stay after school (when he was there), gave him extra homework and sent him to see the school's social worker. All attempts to get him back to class have failed. He explains his lack of motivation: 'I am in Form Three because the school wants me to finish this year and leave. I am now killing time until the end of the year so I can start working.' By law, all children must complete nine years' compulsory education, taking them to Form Three. It is illegal to employ anyone under 15 years of age. Wendy Lau Yuen-ming, social worker at the Youth Outreach Centre, says youngsters often claim they play truant because they think it's fun or they are spurred on by friends. The majority, however, have problems at school. 'They daydream in class and think they are poor students and cannot make it,' Ms Lau says. 'It is questionable whether the school system is suitable for everyone.' Choi Kam-sat, co-ordinator of the Hong Kong Playground Association's outreach system, says truancy is a symptom reflecting deeper problems. 'Some students don't have a sense of achievement at school,' Mr Choi says. 'They have poor grades. 'Others do not have a good relationship with their teachers and peers. They want to get away from their problems so they leave school.' He said dropouts tended to be former truants. A 1994 Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups survey found that 71.4 per cent of the 155 dropouts interviewed had previously played truant. The Education Department conducts an annual survey on dropouts - any student absent for 14 days or more - but it does not keep truancy figures. 'Usually the school punishes them [truants] immediately and that's it,' says Simon Lau Wai-bing, the Education Department's chief information officer. 'If it does not happen regularly, it is not worth paying attention to.' But Mr Choi warned that truancy often opened the door to other teenage problems: 'If they do not go to school they are likely to meet undesirable friends. They are more likely to join triads or take drugs.' Judith admits she has experimented with cough mixture, sleeping pills and marijuana but now indulges in nothing but cigarettes. She feels less vulnerable: 'If you are drugged, it is easier for you to be [sexually] harassed. So far, it has not happened to me.' When a student is discovered playing truant, the school contacts their parents and then refers the case to a school social worker. But the load on social workers is heavy and often they must serve at many schools. The Education Department reveals that there is one student guidance officer for every 2,500 primary students. In secondary schools, there is one social worker for every 1,700 students. The Federation of Youth Groups' survey showed that 47.8 per cent of students interviewed had played truant for more than seven days in one school year. Only 20.3 per cent of them were reported to school social workers. Dr Law Chi-kwong, legislator and a Social Welfare Advisory Committee member, is aware of the time constraints social workers must endure. 'It is basic to the relationship between student and social worker that they know who he or she is, so when they have problems they can talk to them,' he says. 'Now, students may not know who their social worker is, or the social worker may not be present [through working at other schools] when the student needs them. We have been suggesting one social worker for every school for years - we need resources in this area.' The Education Department considers truancy to be the responsibility of social workers. 'Our team helps dropouts; with truants, it depends on the school social worker,' explains Henry Yip Kim-hung, a team inspector for cases of absenteeism. His team deals mainly with dropouts. If a student is absent for seven days, schools must file a report to the non-attendance cases team. Within a month of receiving this report, the department contacts the family in an effort to find out why a student is playing truant and then works on a plan to help the individual. The department sends uncooperative parents a warning letter. If they ignore this, a school attendance order is issued which formally states they are breaching the law. 'We will explain to the family that, by law, parents have the responsibility to send children to school,' Mr Yip says. 'The maximum punishment is $5,000 and three months' imprisonment.' Five warning letters and four attendance orders were issued to parents during the 1995-96 school year. Mr Yip says a letter will usually prompt parents to send their children back to school within the set time period. With school counselling services stretched to the limit, it is often staff at outreach centres who take on the burden of helping teenage truants. Their work takes them to fast-food outlets, shopping malls, videogame arcades, football grounds and billiard centres. Outreach social worker Jimmy Wong Chi-ming met Kai-hung at a football court in Tse Wan Shan. Mr Wong believes that even teenagers with no interest in study should get back to school because it provides a structure for the day, is character-building and teaches organisational skills. 'When they drop out, their lives become disordered,' he says. 'They stay up all night, wake up in the afternoon, then go out again. 'If they lead such a life, it will be difficult for them to get used to work later. They won't wake up early enough, extending their problems into their working lives. 'Going to school is something that regulates their life.'