Truanting pupils face tougher sanctions

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THE Government has launched a crackdown on problem pupils, promising to cut both expulsions and the time lost to truancy by one-third in three years.

Tony Blair yesterday promised new powers for police and the courts to take action against truants and their parents, and backed a series of technological measures to make sure children attend class.

Mr Blair outlined his proposals in advance of today's publication of the first report by the Government's social exclusion unit, which is tackling problems in schools as the first stage of a wide-ranging review of social difficulties.

Both truancy and expulsions have increased sharply in recent years. Estimates suggest around one million children play truant each year. Another 100,000 are suspended from school and 13,000 are expelled. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, Mr Blair said yesterday that truancy for many "is the first step down the pathway into poverty, crime and despair".

The 21 recommendations in today's report are expected to adopt a carrot- and-stick approach to encourage children to attend school, while imposing sanctions on persistent offenders and their parents.

Mr Blair's targets, however, will be tough to deliver. Expulsions have been rising for a decade and teachers have been quick to condemn what they say are increasing incidents of disruptive and violent behaviour.

The most innovative proposals backed by Mr Blair yesterday include extending the use of electronic registers in schools and issuing pagers to the parents of truants to alert them if their children fail to turn up.

Many schools have already successfully adopted computerised registers, with some issuing children with swipe cards to log them into every lesson and keep track of those who turn up for registration but take the rest of the day off.

The social exclusion unit is also expected to back extra powers for police to take truants back to school if they are spotted. At present, police can intervene only if children commit an offence.

Ministers are expected to amend the Crime and Disorder Bill to hold parents responsible for truants in extreme cases. The Bill already allows courts to impose sanctions, including lessons in parenting, on the parents of offenders.

But the report is expected to include incentives for schools such as ''dowries'' for those that take on expelled children and action to make classes more relevant for disillusioned children.

The measures could include work-related study for some 14-year-olds, which may involve sending them into colleges or companies rather than schools.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers, warned that targets to reduce truancy could simply ''dump the problem back into the classroom and make things worse for the other kids".

He said: "It's all very well for the police to pick truants up, but what are we going to do with them back at school? This is really a social problem and we are a bit uneasy that schools are having social problems dumped on them."

Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, warned that the Prime Minister's strategy would raise practical problems. He said: "Both exclusions and truancy are endemic problems which need to be tackled. But what you can't do is have national edicts which reduce exclusions and truancy. It has to be done by a lot of work on the ground and teachers have to be free to chase these things up."

Service in the armed forces would be one of the alternatives offered to young unemployed people on the "new deal" welfare-to-work programme, Government sources said yesterday. But it was said that there was no question of a backdoor return to national service.

Under the new deal, under-25 youngsters out of work for more than six months are offered four options: a job, training, work on an environmental task force, or a job with training. While a job in the armed forces could be offered to suitable candidates, refusal would only lead to a loss of part of benefit if all other options were spurned, too.