Truancy has become a major target of John Major's 'back to basics' drive, and Mr Patten said last night that it should be recognised as a 'national tragedy'. The publication of official truancy league tables had exposed the extent of the problem, he told a school prize-giving in Towcester, Northamptonshire.
It had become too serious for schools to deal with alone, and parents did not always fulfil their moral and legal duties, he said. Adults who saw children hanging around in shopping centres, travelling alone on buses or trains, playing in parks or renting videos should contact the authorities.
'An education lost is rarely regained. But the problem goes much wider and much deeper than a lost education. Where are these children during the course of the schools day? What do they do? Who are they with?
'We cannot afford to walk by on the other side, to shuffle off the responsibility on to schools or the police.' Mr Patten said that under 'truancy watch' schemes, shoppers, park attendants and bus conductors could watch out for children who ought to be at school. The introduction of school uniforms, which made such pupils easily identifiable, would also help, he added.
In 10 years since Neighbourhood Watch was set up, 115,000 schemes had started, Mr Patten said.
He also entered the debate on how to raise children's moral standards, saying that religious schools were the answer. Speaking on Radio 4's The World at One, he said that Catholic, Jewish and Anglican schools gave the clearest moral messages.
'The voluntary-aided schools do generally have that very firm moral framework, that straightforward, straight- down-the-line, 'this is right, this is wrong' kind of teaching which I happen to think young children need.
''The best schools I've seen have been those who through their very ethos stop evil creeping up on children.'
Minister makes peace, page 2
Leading article, page 16
Letters, page 17Reuse content