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Keeping track

Nearly one million pupil days are lost because of truancy, but an automated system is alerting parents and schools if a child does not turn up

fewer scottish children are missing school, thanks to technology that alerts their parents if they do not turn up - but nearly a million pupil days are lost because of truancy.

The automated alert system has been used in about 600 schools. Secondary schools taking part saw a 0.5 per cent improvement in attendance. Primary schools - where truancy is less common - saw a 0.1 per cent improvement.

"It's clear that the systems not only discourage absence but also have an added child protection benefit, alerting parents if their child unexpec-tedly fails to turn up at school," said Hugh Henry, the Education Minister. "Following the success of the pilot, I'd encourage more schools to consider implementing absence alerts."

Overall, however, truancy rates remain similar to last year, resulting in just under one million (0.7 per cent) pupil days being lost. A total of about 139,000 (one in five) pupils who attended a school for more than half the year truanted at least once.

Mr Henry stressed that the vast majority of pupils had excellent attendance and that 32,000 - or 5 per cent - had 100 per cent attendance.

But Scottish National Party Shadow Education Minister Fiona Hyslop criticised what she saw as a lack of progress on truancy, arguing that the Labour-Liberal Democrat government had not tackled inflated holiday packages outside term times. She also said that the automated systems focused on truancy more than child protection.

Musselburgh Grammar School in East Lothian, is one of a number of schools to have introduced automated systems.

Ronnie Summers, the headteacher, was sure it had played a "significant part" in attendance at the school, which rose by 3 per cent last year. "The system does probably require a school to invest more office time in the registration process, but we reaped many benefits."

The Scottish Executive provided pound;740,000 for a nationwide trial of automated systems. Two-thirds of secondary schools took part across 31 councils. At primary level, automated systems were piloted in 15 per cent of schools by 11 councils.

Shetland Islands Council was the only council not to take part. Robert Sim, the council's quality improvement officer, said it had turned down funding because schools thought they had good enough systems in place already, and because mobile phones often failed to work in Shetland. Mr Sim felt that national initiatives should give more consideration to local circumstances.

This week's statistics showed that Aberdeenshire Council had the highest overall attendance rate (94.2 per cent), while three councils recorded rates of under 90 per cent: Glasgow (88.3), Dundee (89.1) and Edinburgh (89.8).

It was not possible to compare all truancy and sickness records across Scotland, as seven councils reported high rates of "other authorised absence"; analysis showed that these absences were likely to be a result of sickness or truancy.

The executive felt this showed that a number of authorities had not complied fully with guidance on recording data. These were Argyll and Bute, East Renfrew-shire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire. Dundee City Council, meanwhile, did not report figures on lateness in the same way as other councils, meaning a slight increase in recorded attendance.

The executive stressed that following guidelines would mean that patterns of attendance could be identified and the protection of children improved.

But a Glasgow City Council spokeswoman described the guidelines as "unreasonably complex and time-consuming".

"All absent pupils are effectively guilty until proven innocent, in that they are initially to be marked as an unauthorised absence, with school staff having to go back and mark them as having an explanation if and when they give one," she said.


Facts and figures

The rate of attendance at secondary schools was 90.4 per cent this year, up from 90.2 per cent the previous year. The primary rate stayed at 95 per cent.

Overall, there was little difference in attendance rates between boys and girls. Boys did, however, have significantly better attendance from S5 to S6.

Less than 10 per cent of pupils were responsible for 90 per cent of time lost owing to truancy.

Truancy rates reached a peak of 1.8 per cent in S4.

Primary pupils registered for free school meals had a truancy rate four times that of their peers. The difference narrows in secondary and reverses in S6.

There were 4.2 million pupil days lost to sickness. Sickness rates increase suddenly at secondary school, especially among girls, with deprivation often a factor.

Less than a third of the 661,000 days lost to holidays were authorised.

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