Ministers now face another damaging confrontation with teachers, following the widespread boycott of national curriculum tests last term, which led to the cancellation of planned league tables for seven- and 14-year-olds.
Teachers say the truancy exercise is pointless, particularly in primary and independent schools, which do not have a significant problem. Sick children who fail to hand in a note are marked as truants, they say.
By law, schools had to send details of 'unauthorised absences' to local authorities in June so that they could be passed on to the Department. In some areas, only half the head teachers have completed the complex forms. Some primary schools have returned them with the reply that they do not have truancy.
The proportion of heads who returned the forms varied from just over half in Cambridgeshire to more than 95 per cent in Bolton, Greater Manchester.
Teachers' organisations have advised their members that, although they will be breaking the law if they refuse to give the figures, they should not regard them as a priority.
Head teachers have complained that the forms are a bureaucratic nightmare, and that opinions differ on what constitutes an unauthorised absence. Pupils must now be registered twice a day, and 17 different symbols used to denote kinds of absence.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: 'The vast majority of heads have the view that league tables of truancy returns are a meaningless exercise.'
Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters' Conference, which represents leading independent schools, said: 'As far as most of our schools are concerned, parents part with massive fees and they put such huge pressure on their children to make sure that they are there that the whole exercise is a nonsense,'
Liz Paver, head of Intake First School in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, who did not submit the form, said: 'I don't believe that truancy is something that happens under the age of nine.'
'If parents want to know about truancy problems they can read the details in the school brochure. But the idea of using them to compare one school with another is just wrong,' said John McNicholas, head of Molescroft Primary in Beverley, Humberside.
The Department for Education said it was too soon to say whether any action would be taken against heads who had refused to give information.
The truancy issue is one more problem in the bulging in-tray which will confront John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, when he returns to work tomorrow after his gastric illness. Mr Patten is said by officials to be 'full of beans'.Reuse content