John Patten, Secretary of State, said legislation might be needed to give officials tougher powers against the absentees. The police can ask truants to accompany them, but cannot coerce them.
Mr Patten was launching a pounds 14m package of measures to tackle the problem in 86 local authorities, including 'truancy watch' schemes in 43 areas. Among other measures were electronic registration programmes to monitor children's movements. Local authorities must find 40 per cent of the money.
The announcements stem from a speech made by Mr Patten last year, when he said that bus conductors and park keepers might help to spot truants. A pilot project in Staffordshire has led to a 50 per cent drop in juvenile arrests. The scheme, which also involves welfare officers and shopkeepers, has been copied by many other authorities.
Among the new projects is one in the Strand Shopping Centre, Bootle, from where James Bulger was abducted and murdered by two truants. A welfare officer will be based at the centre.
Mr Patten said there was no suggestion that members of the public should drag pupils back to school, but officials should have greater powers. 'If you have got teenagers who simply won't go back, then perhaps we should give education welfare officers or the police an opportunity to make sure they do go back to school,' he said.
Mr Patten also suggested that parents who refused to face up to their responsibilities should be brought to court more frequently.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the extra funding should be provided on a long-term basis. 'I hope the Secretary of State is not going to damage the good aspects of the initiative by being heavy-handed,' he said.
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