Ministers are convinced that combating truancy is one of the key elements in raising educational standards and fighting crime. As the social exclusion unit pointed out in May, pupils who play truant are far more likely to end up unemployed or homeless and many get drawn into crime.
David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, devoted a large part of his Labour party conference speech yesterday to urging local authorities and schools to adopt "truancy crackdowns" involving the whole school and local community, clear discipline policies in schools (many children truant because of fear of bullying), computerised registration, and more after-school clubs and study support schemes.
At Smithills comprehensive in Bolton, a trial with pagers and registration produced a rise in attendance of nearly 23 per cent - and virtually stopped bunking off after registration. Regular truants knew they could no longer get away with it: their parents had been given pagers and were contacted immediately their child was missing.
Schools must struggle to meet the Government's aim of a reduction of one-third in the time lost to truancy by 2002. Last year, about 1 million children took at least one half-day off without permission.
Councils and schools will be encouraged to launch anti-truancy drives of the kind that proved successful in the shopping malls of Stoke-on-Trent in 1994. Shopkeepers agreed to challenge any school-age child found in a shop during school hours, while police and education staff patrolled the malls.
The result was a marked reduction in truancy and a cut of one-third in the number of crimes previously attributed to truanting pupils. The scheme has now been copied by 70 other towns.