The Government was too soft on truants during its first term in office and had only introduced a zero-tolerance clampdown in the past six to 12 months, an Education minister admitted yesterday.
Ivan Lewis, the minister responsible for truancy, said it was unfair to blame ministers for failing to cut the truancy rate - which has remained unchanged since records began in 1994 - saying that the problem had been ignored by successive governments over the past 25 years.
"We have had a wishy-washy approach to this, which has been too soft and too woolly," Mr Lewis said. "Behaviour and discipline have slipped. That has happened in our schools and spilt out on to our streets ... We have allowed it to happen for too long.
"I believe in the last six to 12 months we have focused on this for the first time in our second term of office. My job is to create an environment where we have a zero-tolerance approach to truancy."
About 50,000 pupils are thought to play truant every day. Rates in primary and secondary schools have remained constant at about 7.5 million days missed annually since records began. The Government has set a target to cut truancy by 10 per cent by next May.
The fast-track prosecution system for parents launched in January was successfully cutting truancy, Mr Lewis claimed. The jailing of Patricia Amos, the first parent to be sentenced for condoning truancy, had been a turning point for other parents, who were shocked at her sentence.
Mr Lewis cited the fact that Ms Amos admitted prison had taught her a valuable lesson and had promised to ensure her daughters attended school as evidence that the policy was working.
Under the system, parents of persistent truants have 12 weeks' warning before they are taken to court, where they can be fined £2,500 or be jailed for three months.
Damian Green, the shadow Education Secretary, said the solution to truancy lay in making school a more interesting experience for pupils. "This means giving a decent education to less academic children, who too often are set on the road to truancy by boredom and a sense of failure," he said.
- More about: