Fears over 'Truant Watch'

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(First Edition)

JOHN PATTEN yesterday defended his proposals for a 'Truancy Watch' network after teaching unions suggested it would be open to abuse, writes Helen Nowicka.

The Secretary of State for Education had suggested local communities establish groups similar to Neighbourhood Watch schemes to look out for youngsters 'playing the wag'.

Mr Patten's proposals follow the conviction of two 11-year-olds who murdered James Bulger while absent from school, and the publication of truancy figures which showed the problem is particularly acute in inner-city areas.

They have been criticised by Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, who argued children could have genuine reasons for being out of class such as dental or hospital appointments.

Mr De Gruchy said pupils could be maliciously or mistakenly reported absent, adding that the idea that strangers should approach youngsters in the street would give rise to 'dangerous possibilities'.

Mr Patten yesterday refuted Mr De Gruchy's comments. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'If I was walking down the street and saw somebody in the middle of the morning in school uniform, I think it would be all right to say, 'Well, shouldn't you be at school?'. There's nothing wrong with that for the average adult.'

Yesterday Inspector Edwin Lewis, the co-ordinator of a Staffordshire anti-truancy scheme praised by Mr Patten, said it had reduced crime levels and freed police officers for other duties.

Inspector Lewis said stores, education welfare workers, parents and the police were working together to maintain a truancy-free zone in Hanley town centre. Offenders are dealt with by education officers who notify parents their children have missed school.

Inspector Lewis said: 'Over the last couple of months I can't remember a child being arrested in the town centre.'