SCOTTISH schools have been put on notice to make major inroads into pupil absenteeism. Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, confirmed the Government's expectation that new targets for attendance, backed by money from the Scottish Office's excellence fund, "will get things moving again in the right direction".
School-by-school tables on attendance and absence show virtually no improvement in recent years - an overall 6 per cent absence rate in primaries and 11 per cent in secondary schools. Primary pupils are off school for 10.5 days on average, while the figure for secondary is 21.5 days.
Mrs Liddell, presumably committing Labour to the same policy in the Scottish parliament, said the target was to reduce absenteeism by 1.5 days in primary and three days in secondary over the next three years.
When tables were first published, for 1993-94, each primary pupil was absent for 11.5 days on average with secondary pupils off for 22 days. But Mrs Liddell believes things are about to change with the renewed emphasis on the issue and the increased awareness that "better attendance means better results".
"There are schools in Scotland who have proved this year that reductions of this level, and even greater, are possible," she said. "The increased focus brought by targets will see schools reaching and indeed surpassing them."
But, once again, the Government finds its biggest challenge is to convince parents, not schools. Absences condoned by parents make the biggest contribution to the non-attendance register. Authorised absences remain at 5 per cent of the total in primaries, although they have fallen slightly among secondary pupils, from 11 per cent to 10 per cent.
The figures hide huge variations across the country. Tealing primary in Angus and Pollokshields primary in Glasgow have the highest rate of authorised absences - at 14 per cent, almost three times the national average.
The secondaries with the biggest challenges are Drumchapel High and Springburn Academy in Glasgow, where authorised absenteeism is running at 27 per cent - almost three times the Scottish figure and 10 points above the average for other secondaries in the city.
Mrs Liddell acknowledged that this is a pressing problem. "Obviously sometimes there are very good reasons for parents to keep their children off school. However, I believe that there is considerable scope for working with parents to reduce absence rates.
"In particular, I would encourage parents to consider very carefully the educational consequences of taking their children out of school for trivial reasons."
Mrs Liddell did not define "trivial reasons", although she was presumably chastising parents such as the Prime Minister who remove their children for family holidays rather than for sickness or bereavement.
The incidence of unauthorised absenteeism - which includes temporary exclusions as well as truancy - also ranges widely. Haghill primary in Glasgow and Botriphnie primary in Moray record a 6 per cent figure, against a national average of zero.
The secondary with the unenviable record of having the highest score is Castlebrae High in Edinburgh, at 9 per cent, against an Edinburgh rate of 2 per cent and a Scottish figure of 1 per cent.
Botriphnie's 6 per cent of unauthorised absenteeism should be seen against a school roll for September 1997 of 29 pupils.
Castlebrae, on the other hand, has made major strides in reducing authorised absences from 22 per cent three years ago to 9 per cent, which has pushed up the unauthorised figure from 1 per cent to 9 per cent. The school also had to take in truanting youngsters from other schools whose behaviour did not change.