Crackdown fails to stop children skipping school

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About fifty thousand children a day are skipping school in England despite a £174m crackdown on truancy, official statistics showed yesterday.

As many pupils dodged the classroom last year as in 1998, when David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education at the time, pledged to reduce truancy by one-third.

According to the Government's own figures, unauthorised absence from secondary schools in the 2000-01 academic year accounted for 1.1 per cent of school hours. A typical secondary school truant missed 17 half days in the year.

At primary schools, children lost on average one in 200 half days, the same as in 1998-99, with a typical truant skipping about one week a year.

The figures, released by the Department for Education and Skills, will disappoint ministers, who launched a national crackdown on truancy last autumn after admitting that they were in danger of missing Mr Blunkett's target, set for September next year.

Police were ordered to increase their attempts to catch truants and courts were given increased powers to punish the parents of persistent truants. Research had shown that many children playing truant were caught with an adult, usually a parent. Parents of truants now risk up to three months' imprisonment and a maximum fine of £2,500.

Since Labour was elected in 1997, ministers have tried a variety of anti-truancy initiatives, including pagers for parents, "truancy buster" awards of £10,000 for the 50 schools with the most successful strategies, and truancy watch schemes.

Ministers are concerned at the link between truancy and crime. One survey found that 72 per cent of truants had committed at least one offence.

The statistics also confirm a link between truancy and poor exam results. Schools with above average truancy rates get below average rates of good GCSE passes. But truancy is also linked to poverty. Schools with high truancy rates have high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, blamed some parents for condoning truancy. He said: "These figures demonstrate what a difficult problem truancy is to crack. Too many parents do not take their child's attendance at school seriously."

He said schools had been tough on pupils long before the Government set targets. "Children cannot learn unless they are in school. If schools are to meet their achievement targets they must first improve pupils' attendance," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We recognise the hard work done by many schools but there is still a great deal more to do. We expect local education authorities and schools to look at every possible way to reduce unauthorised and authorised absence."