Analysis: A tough nut to crack - why Blair is failing at his main subject

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The bad tidings began with truancy figures showing a record rise of nearly 10 per cent to the highest level since the statistics began. This was followed by higher education's "league tables", showing the percentage of state school recruits to universities has fallen for the first time and that the drop-out rate among first-year students is increasing.

There is a common thread to this - and it shows that, however determined ministers are to improve the lot of children from deprived communities, it is a difficult nut to crack and they have not cracked it.

The first hurdle is obvious. If the pupils are not in school (and the statistics show that just 8,000 pupils in 146 mainly inner-city secondary schools are responsible for 20 per cent of all the truancy in the country), then they are not going to be able to get a decent education. They are not going to be able to move on to phase two of the Government's plan - which is to encourage them to go to university.

It seems that all the truancy sweeps in the world are not going to encourage them to go back to school for sufficiently long to benefit from what is on offer there. On the question of benefiting from what is on offer, we move on to the school curriculum. The Government needs to provide relevant high quality vocational education for these youngsters and - in this context - it is a pity that it did not accept the recommendations of the inquiry into 14 to 19 education by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson for a new diploma embracing both vocational and academic qualifications. That would have given vocational qualifications the impetus they needed to be respected by the community.

On to the second hurdle, getting young people from deprived communities to apply to universities. There is still a bigger perceived fear of debt among families in deprived communities and headteachers' leaders believe this may be the reason behind the fall in the percentage of state school pupils being recruited to universities.

While because of the overall increase in student numbers, the number of state school recruits has risen - albeit at a lower rate than private school recruits - heads believe it has still not been possible to persuade sufficient numbers of state school parents to opt for higher education and overcome this balance.

Finance may also be partly the reason why the third hurdle - that of ensuring that students do not drop out - has failed to be cleared. The Government is hoping to remedy the situation by offering a much improved financial package to support those from poorer homes.

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