More than a million children a year play truant from school

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More than a million school children now play truant every year, a rise of more than a quarter since Labour came to power, according to shocking new figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday.

More than a million school children now play truant every year, a rise of more than a quarter since Labour came to power, according to shocking new figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday.

Despite a long-standing government pledge to cut the number of pupils skipping lessons - blamed for undermining educational standards, particularly in inner-city secondary schools - the number of English pupils playing truant has increased by 29 per cent since 1997.

A total of 1,264,103 primary and secondary students took time off without permission last year, substantially more than the 978,000 who did so seven years ago.

Ministers have invested heavily in initiatives to bring down the number of truants, and have gone so far as jailing parents whose children fail to attend. But according to the Conservatives there is a growing culture of truancy. While last year saw a slight reduction in the overall amount of time lost, the number of students "bunking off" has risen sharply - including many in middle-class areas.

Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins said: "The fact that over a million children are playing truant from our schools every year is an appalling indictment of Labour's management of our education system."

A new league table of truancy in England, organised by political constituencies, reveals that the area with the greatest number of secondary students missing lessons is suburban Edmonton in north London. More than 3,000 pupils - 64 per cent - missed at least half a day of school without permission over the 2002-03 academic year. Other problem areas include Sheffield Brightside, the constituency of David Blunkett, a former secretary of state for education. In contrast, only 156, or 2 per cent, of 11- to 16-year-olds were absent without leave in Wirral West for half a day or more.

This analysis is based on school attendance figures for every parliamentary constituency between 1997 and 2003, revealed in a parliamentary answer asked by the Conservative MP for Fareham, Mark Hoban. The Tory party has seized on the figures to claim they show a "growing culture of truancy".

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It's intensely disappointing that truancy remains a problem when a great deal of money is being invested in truancy reduction programmes."

At Edmonton Green shopping centre, the young skivers are easy to pick out at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon in term time. Adwan is even dressed in his smart school jumper with distinctive crest as he mooches round the shops with his 17-year-old brother.

The 13-year-old is typical of a generation of children who prefer hanging out with their friends to attending lessons. He has slipped off for the afternoon and says he comes to the shopping centre because "no one really bothers you".

"The teachers do ask if you have taken a day off but you can tell them that you were sick or something, so that's OK," says the teenager, whose name has been changed, along with those of all the children the paper interviewed, to protect his identity.

Dressed in tracksuit trousers and a fur-lined parka, Danielle is with a group of friends who include a young mother who has brought her baby along in a pushchair.

According to Danielle, who is 16, truancy is accepted at her school: "It happens all the time. People bunk off lessons and a lot of people don't go back to school after lunch. They just slope around the Green [shopping centre] and smoke fags or whatever."

Wandering around aimlessly with his hands in his pockets, 15-year-old Nicholas displays no guilt when he explains that he has decided to skip school for a week.

"I just didn't fancy going back to school when term started," he says.

"I only bunk off about two weeks a year. I'm not worried because I'm the smartest person in my class, so I'm OK. If the teachers ever hassle me I just write my own sick note."

As headmaster of Aylward School in Edmonton, John Keller struggles on a daily basis to change the mindset of children like Nicholas who do not think success and hard work go together.

Many of his 1,459 pupils come from deprived backgrounds where education is not top of the list of priorities for the family. In his opinion, quick-fix measures such as fining parents do not work - what is needed is more support staff like behaviour managers, educational psychologists and learning mentors, truancy patrols and educational welfare officers.

"I'm trying to create a haven for children from their past experiences to give them an opportunity for change. The role models are not coming from home and there is a misconception that you do not have to work for your future, which is classic working-class mentality.

"It's the instant-gratification culture and the lack of expectation. Middle-class families value education at all levels."

The Department for Education and Skills said it was investing £470m over the next three years to tackle truancy, with measures including drafting in behaviour consultants to train staff in identifying truancy at an early age. There is also a growing number of specialist learning support units for children judged to be at risk of truanting.

Additional reporting by Charlotte Norton