THE smiling boy in the puffa jacket is walking out of Santa's grotto when the truancy team pounces.
It is an hour into the Bristol truancy sweep, and the policeman and education welfare officer are taking a break from the frosty streets to search the shopping mall.
The boy's father hurries over to the grotto to apologise. Yes, he explains, the eight-year-old should be in school, but the queues for Santa can be so long. He meekly promises to take his son back in the afternoon.
Like all education authorities, Bristol was this week taking part in the Government's nationwide truancy sweep, sending eight teams out to question every school-age child they can find.
The patrols tend to find more secondary pupils when they search the city's outlying estates, but the centre attracts parents who take their children out of primary school to go Christmas shopping.
Senior education welfare officer Annie Cam, wrapped up in a large purple jacket for the patrol, said that she stopped children from as far afield as the Netherlands on previous sweeps.
"We had one boy who should have been at school in Jamaica," Ms Cam said. "I'd liked to have taken him back to class."
Ms Cam was accompanied on this week's sweep by PC Ben Sale, who stepped in whenever a parent or pupil became unco-operative, grabbing a 10-year-old as he started to run off.
Many of the excuses from children and their parents were unconvincing. One mother explained that her daughter had a headache, another simply exclaimed: "But it's Christmas." Both were warned that in the future they could be given on-the-spot fines.
However, the majority of parents were with children who had genuine sickness or hospital appointments.
Eight-year-old Laura Czemerys even showed the patrol her chicken pox spots as proof. Her mother Anna received a reprimand for taking her sick daughter outside, but said she was relieved that the team were checking for truants. "We thought they were trying to sell us catalogues," she said.
A total of 140 pupils were stopped by the Bristol patrol in the first morning. Elsewhere in the country more than 800 truancy sweeps were also taking place. Posters highlighting the problems caused by unauthorised attendance were put up in shopping centres and high streets to coincide with the blitz. Leaflets were also printed warning parents they could face fines of up to pound;2,500 or jail sentences for allowing children to truant.
In Birmingham, police and education welfare officers patrolled in a pair of marked cars this week, while in Manchester teams boarded trains to check on pupils taking trips in and out of the city.
At the time of going to press, LEAs told The TES they had found between 30 and 200 pupils on the streets in a single day.
In Blackpool, truancy patrols stopped 61 young people on the first day of the sweep, nearly half of whom were accompanied by an adult.
And a spokesman for Sandwell LEA said 29 of the 36 children stopped by teams on a patrol were with parents who described them as "too ill" to be in school. A government spokeswoman said there had been an "excellent" take-up on the sweeps, and that results would be available in the New Year.
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