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Murder may trigger new absence rules

Absence reporting policies in schools may be re-examined in the wake of the murder of 11-year-old Rory Blackhall, Peter Peacock, Education Minister, has signalled. Rory disappeared last Thursday after being dropped off near Meldrum primary in Livingston.

The boy's family only realised that Rory was missing when his grandfather arrived to pick him up after school - to be told he had not been in class all day.

In an unrelated move, the Scottish Executive this week issued new guidance on tracking children who disappear from school, backed by a Children Missing Education (CME) service (page four). This, however, is aimed principally at families who have indicated that they are moving from one area to another and whose children do not arrive at their new school.

West Lothian Council, which is responsible for Meldrum primary, has confirmed that its policy is to contact families of an absent child within two to three days, rather than immediately, if the school has received no notification of the child's absence.

However, a spokesman for the council said: "We will consider the need to review any of our policies and arrangements in light of current events."

He added: "In common with other councils, our normal procedure is to await information from parents if a child does not attend school. If this information is not provided, we take the initiative by contacting families within two or three days of absence."

Mr Peacock commented: "Our thoughts go out to Rory's family and friends at this tragic time. While it is too early to speculate on precisely what happened in this case, we will work with councils, headteachers and parents' organisations to re-examine our guidance on absence reporting to establish whether there are further practical steps which should be taken to improve this."

A spokeswoman for the Executive said its latest figures indicated that 141 primaries and 177 secondaries across Scotland operated automated truancy call and parent alert systems. "It provides an early warning - by text or voicemail - to alert parents that their child is not at school," she said.

"Although principally designed to tackle truancy, it also has child protection benefits."

However, it seems unlikely that the Executive will take any immediate steps towards laying down national regulations on absence reporting. The spokeswoman said: "Local schools are far better placed than we are to decide these issues. Every child is different.

"If a child is a regular attender and if he or she is off school and there has been no phone call, that is the sort of thing that might trigger an alarm bell. But if a child is a persistent truant, the school will probably have an arrangement with the family.

"As with any incident like this, if there are any lessons that we think can be learnt and any further practical steps that can be taken, we will do that. Child protection is of paramount importance."

On average, 50,000 pupils are absent from school on any given day (7 per cent of the pupil population) and a more immediate absence reporting system would have huge resource implications.

"Local knowledge and local judgment are not things you can legislate for.

Setting up a national system might stop flexibility," the spokeswoman said.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, which represents primary heads, said that it was clearly good practice to follow up absences, but most schools did not have the staff to operate a more precise system. To follow up every case would require more resources.

Mr Dempster said he was sceptical about automated truancy call systems since, to operate them properly, someone had to ensure that contact had been made with a parent. "If contact is not made, you can never be sure what the situation is," he said. "So it is not a complete solution."

leader 14; Scotland Plus 2-3

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