Truancy squads find 12,000 pupils off school in one month

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More than 12,000 children, many of primary school age, were discovered during "sweeps" of Britain's worst truancy blackspots, the Government said yesterday.

More than 12,000 children, many of primary school age, were discovered during "sweeps" of Britain's worst truancy blackspots, the Government said yesterday.

A crackdown in the high streets and shopping areas of 34 towns and cities with the worst truancy records in the country also showed half the children were accompanied by their parents.

Reasons given for playing truant included "my hamster died and I need to buy a new one" and "because of a spot on my nose". One mother accompanying a child told questioners she was too busy to stop because "I have to buy some new jeans".

On average, more than 50,000 youngsters skip school every day and league tables show a million half-days of schooling are lost because of truancy every year.

Stephen Twigg, the minister given responsibility for tackling truancy since the Government reshuffle last month, said: "Some of the reasons those questioned did supply were unacceptable. This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. One of the most alarming aspects of these figures is the number of children stopped with a parent or responsible adult. Around half of the children stopped were with a parent and had no good excuse for being out of school.

"Parents have to take responsibility otherwise they are jeopardising their children's education and future."

One in five of those stopped was returned to school by education welfare officers. Parents accompanying truants were told they could be fined or jailed if they continued to allow their child to play truant.

A breakdown revealed that 68 per cent of those stopped were of secondary school age. The youngest children playing truant on their own were aged seven. The crackdown, last month, represented a tenfold increase in the number of truancy sweeps in the target areas.

However, police and education welfare officers who ran the sweeps noted fewer truants on the streets towards the end of the month – after news of the jailing of Patricia Amos, the single parent from Oxfordshire who condoned her two daughters playing truant, received widespread publicity.

The sweeps were part of a £66m government purge on truancy and will be repeated in September.

Ministers are considering regional radio advertising to remind parents of their responsibilities. One of their targets would be parentally condoned absence, such as taking children out of school for two weeks' holiday during term time.

The results of the May survey were announced the day after reports that a 14-year-old girl got a job in a hospital while playing truant from school. Darrianne Greenwood cleaned wards and offices at Milton Keynes general hospital while playing truant from Radcliffe School for 15 weeks.

Her mother, Alison, was fined a total of £300 by magistrates on Monday for failing to ensure she attended school.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Far too much truancy is condoned by parents. Schools use many different ways to improve attendance but these are of little use unless parents support them.

"For too long, the courts and local authorities have given insufficient support to schools in dealing with persistent truants. The Patricia Amos case demonstrates that stronger action by the courts has a beneficial effect across the system."