Leading article: Money alone will not reduce truancy

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Truancy figures published yesterday show a rise in the rate of unauthorised absences, even though the Government has thrown more than £1bn at the problem. Worryingly, the rise is accounted for entirely by increased absence at primary schools. The picture in secondary schools is of a slight improvement.

The Government has spent its money largely on truancy sweeps in shopping areas and by focusing on the schools with the worst truancy records. And there has been some success in persuading persistent truants to return to the classroom. If these pupils are coming back to the classroom, however, this means that the overall problem is actually greater. To produce the current figures, truancy must have risen by rather more elsewhere.

Headteachers offer two reasons for the rise. One is that more pupils are feeling disenfranchised from the classroom. Even in the primary sector, there is a heavy concentration on tests, with the result that growing numbers spend most of their school life being coached for the tests and classrooms lack a sense of fun and enjoyment. The House of Commons education select committee will be investigating the current testing regime when Parliament returns, and it would do well to consider issues like the possible impact of so much testing on truancy when it prepares its recommendations for ministers.

The other reason heads give for the rise in unauthorised absence is that many schools are trying to reduce the time parents take their children out of school for term-time holidays. In the past, schools might have turned a blind eye to the problem, but now they are marking the youngsters concerned down as unauthorised absences - in effect, as truants. It looks as though parents will need a good deal more convincing about the ill-effects of such absence if this problem is to be cracked.

Whatever the reasons, it is now clear that throwing money at the worst offenders and threatening parents with prison is not enough. Research, such as the Select Committee can provide, into the reasons for the latest rise needs to be more considered than the usual platitudes about truancy being a bad thing.

The precise occasions on which pupils are absent, the particulars of the curriculum and the lack of vocational options for the less academically inclined are issues that need to be addressed. If the Government persists with its current approach, it has no hope of reducing unauthorised absences by 8 per cent by 2008, which is its relatively modest goal. And the target of a 30 per cent reduction by 2002, set by David Blunkett when he became Education Secretary in 1997, now sounds like so much whistling in the wind.

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