pounds 1bn drive to cut truancy proves a failure

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THE GOVERNMENT has failed to cut truancy in England despite spending nearly a billion pounds on measures to reduce absence from school, both authorised and unauthorised, the Whitehall spending watchdog reported yesterday.

About 450,000 of the 6.7 million state pupils miss school each day, enough children to fill 816 primary schools and 252 secondary schools. Absent pupils are also missing out on education which costs the state pounds 1.6bn a year, the National Audit Office report concluded. This is despite pounds 885m which has been spent by the Department for Education and Skills since 1997 and a further pounds 560m which has been set aside for measures to improve attendance by 2006, the report, Improving School Attendance in England, concluded.

Although the overall rate of absence has dropped from 7.6 per cent to 6.7 per cent of school days, the rate of truancy has remained at around 0.7 per cent. This resulted in the Government missing one of its key targets - for truancy to be cut by 10 per cent between 2002 and 2004, a reduction of about 5,000 pupils. It has also jeopardised a further DfES target for the total absence rate to be cut to 6.28 per cent by 2008, meaning that 39,000 more children would attend each day.

The NAO report urged ministers to crack down on primary-school truants, arguing that children whose truancy is tolerated in their early years will go on to become the most hardened teenage truants. It also called for a campaign to persuade the parents of truants of the importance of their children's education.

"Negative parental attitudes to education are closely associated with absence and may also be more difficult to change once they become established," the report concluded.

It praised the efforts of some education authorities which have cut truancy by introducing electronic registers to attendance or by offering vocational training to youngsters who are bored by traditional subjects.

Ministers should do more to ensure that innovative schemes like these, which have been shown to be effective, are spread more widely across the country, said the report.

It added: "Attendance needs to be managed because, while absent, young people are not benefiting from education to the value of pounds 1.6bn each year. This represents an educational loss to the young people themselves ... Pupils with high absence rates are much more likely to leave school with few or no qualifications and they are more at risk of being drawn into undesirable activities, including crime and antisocial behaviour."

Absenteeism varies widely between schools, from less than 1 per cent to almost 30 per cent of days missed. Schools in deprived areas, where large numbers of children receive free dinners, tend to have the worst truancy records.

But many schools' truancy was significantly better or worse than might have been expected given their pupils' backgrounds, the report found. This suggested that "at least some of the difference is likely to be due to how schools deal with absence," it said.

Stephen Twigg, the School Standards minister, defended the Government's record and blamed a hard core of 134,000 truants for almost half of all truancy. "School attendance is at record levels, with 40,000 more pupils in school every day than in 1997. However, a hard core of 2 per cent of the country's 6.7 million pupils account for almost half of all truancy," he said.

"We will continue to support LEAs and schools facing the greatest challenges. We will also not hesitate to support LEAs that use sanctions for those parents who condone their child's truancy."