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Absentee plans 'unrealistic'

Heads fear workload if they follow guidelines on informing parents of missing children, reports Chris Macgowan

MINISTERS are urging schools to contact parents on the first day of a pupil's absence, raising concerns of impossible workloads for headteachers.

The guidelines were published as part of a consultation document on how to cut truancy and support vulnerable children. But the advice gained added significance following last week's disappearance - and safe recovery - of the two East Sussex 10-year-olds, Lisa Hoodless and Charlene Lunnon.

The girls' school, Christ Church in St Leonards, was criticised for waiting a whole day before the parents were informed.

The Government's draft guidance on pupil support says: "If a pupil is absent without explanation when the register is called, school staff should wherever possible contact the parents that same day." This would make it clear to families that absence is a matter of concern.

But headteachers' leaders have described immediate attempts to locate absentees as unrealistic.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It will impose considerable pressure on schools not only in normal circumstances but particularly where schools are suffering from large-scale absences dur-ing incidents such as a flu epidemic.

"We do need to strike a sensible balance between the needs of pupils and the needs of schools," he said.

Education Secretary David Blunkett, speaking on Radio 4's Any Questions, struck a more emollient note: "I understand it isn't possible in all circumstances. We don't expect the moon." Parents had to play their part as well as school.

Anne Hanney, head of Christ Church School, said she attempted to account for all children within the first day. But on the day Lisa and Charlene disappeared, 32 children were off sick and 17 pupils late, making an immediate response very difficult.

"At the moment, this is a school of 480 children with two telephone lines. One mother wanting to talk to us has not been able to get through until 10.30am."

She said the idea of recruiting parents to ring round absentees had been considered but rejected because many absences were for confidential reasons.

* The publication of the Government's new guidelines coincided with the announcement of pound;65 million in Government grants to cut truancy.

The money, which is the first slice of pound;500 m announced by Mr Blunkett last year, will be spent on schemes including vocational education for disaffected pupils, pagers for parents of persistent truants and summer schools to help absentees catch up with work they have missed.

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