Around 67,000 school pupils are skipping lessons every day, according to government truancy statistics published yesterday.
Girls are more likely to be persistent truants than boys, missing at least one day's schooling a week, the figures show, and truancy is up 4 per cent compared to the previous year.
The 4 per cent rise is partly because headteachers are taking a tougher line on parents who take their children out of school for things like holidays in term time or trips to the dentist and are registering these as incidents of truancy rather than as authorised absences. As a result, overall figures for authorised absences have fallen.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We are moving back from a widely held belief that you can take a week's holiday in term time. That's not actually authorised absence it and it's also not legal.
"Heads are also cracking down on some of the more trivial reasons given for taking children out of school – such as to buy shoes."
However, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned: "As the economic downturn hits families harder, there will be more pressure on schools to allow pupils to go on holiday during term time."
The figures showed the percentage of children aged five to 16 skipping school for a half-day session rose from 1.01 per cent to 1.05 per cent last year. While this shows a decrease compared to four years ago, in the past decade these figures have risen by 44 per cent.
Overall, the percentage of authorised absences went down from 5.3 per cent in 2006-07 to 5.21 per cent last year.
Just over 200,000 pupils were classed as persistent absentees in that they skipped lessons at least 20 per cent of the time – the equivalent of one day week. The figures show 3.3 per cent of girls were persistent absentees and 3.2 per cent of boys. In addition, the percentage of youngsters on free school meals who were classified as persistent truants was higher than the national average (7.3 per cent compared with 2.5 per cent of the rest of the school population).
Mr Brookes said girls could react "more deeply" to "adverse relationships" in schools. It would not necessarily be bullying which caused their absence, he said, but a difficult relationship.
"We should make sure they have the necessary support," he added.
In addition, girls from dysfunctional families were more likely to be kept at home to look after a sick or alcoholic parent than boys.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats concentrated their guns on the overall rise in truancy.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrats education spokesman, said: "These figures are disgraceful. Despite Tony Blair promising to get a grip on this problem more than a decade ago, truancy levels have rocketed."
Nick Gibb, the Conservative education spokesman, added: "Despite over £1bn of spending the Government has failed to tackle truancy. Persistent absenteeism and truancy is linked with low levels of literacy and must be tackled."
However, the Schools minister Vernon Coaker said: "Overall absence has again fallen to a record low. Every day over 70,000 more pupils are now in school than would be the case if absence rates were still at the level of 1996-97.
"Schools are, quite rightly, cracking down on absences. Weak excuses for missing school, such as oversleeping or a day's holiday, are no longer accepted."Reuse content