EDUCATION secretary David Blunkett has been vexed by the problem of absent pupils. At the Labour party conference last month, he turned his guns on parents of persistent truants, threatening to fine them as much as pound;5000.
But it is local authorities, not families, who have been fingered in a new report that reveals alarming inconsistencies in the way they tackle absences from school.
The Audit Commission study Missing Out - published on Tuesday - is clear that local authorities have a key role in addressing absence, in partnership with parents and schools.
The problem is immense. On any day, just under 400,000 of the eight million pupils who should be in school in England and Wales are not there.
Over the school year, one child in eight will have at least one unauthorised day off - with many increasingly involved in crime.
Apart from truancy, the causes of absence include exclusion, illness and - as the Prime Minister has himself demonstrated - holidays organised by parents.
Yet nearly a third of local authorities have still not produced guidelines to assist schools with absences. Half of education welfare services do not check how well school procedures for maximising attendance are working, often preferring to deal with the problem on a case-by-case basis.
This very lack of information on absent pupils is reflected in the commission's report, which complains of the "limited" data available from authorities beyond the statutory figures on attendance and exclusions.
However what is clear, even from these figures, is that certain groups of children are prone to attendance and exclusion problems.
Children looked after by local authorities make up 0.5 per cent of the school population but they account for 7 per cent of pupils permanently excluded. Children with special needs make up only 2 per cent of pupils but 17 per cent of the permanently excluded. In some education authorities these groups are 25 to 30 times more likely to be expelled. Ethnic minority pupils are also particularly at risk. Yet fewer than one in five authorities monitors these vulnerable groups.
From 2002, local authorities will be required to ensure all excluded pupils receive suitable full-time education after 15 days of exclusion. Many have a long way to go, taking as much as 11 weeks to find alternative education for excluded pupils.
Even then, the alternatives offered rarely mean a return to full-time schooling. Many authorities rely on a few hours a week of home tuition, which costs an average of nearly pound;600 per pupil per week (compared to about pound;30 in mainstream education) - a solution that is unlikely to be affordable full-time.
Of course excluded children are just one, albeit high-profile, element in pupil absences. It appears more young women miss school because of pregnancy than through permanent exclusion, though again, the data here is sketchy.
A survey of education authorities has highlighted parentally-condoned absence and term-time holidays as other key issues of concern. The report also identifies a strong link between levels of deprivation (as measured by the proportion of pupils on free school meals) and non-attendance.
The message from the Audit Commission is clear: if local authorities are serious about raising attendance rates, they must stop dealing with pupil absences on an ad hoc, unsystematic basis.
'On any day, just under 400,000 pupils
who should be in school are not there'
MISSING OUT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
* Each local education authority should have a strategy for improving attendance and preventing exclusions
* Authorities should help schools cut the number of absent pupils by providing expert advice and challenging under-performance
* Authorities should make better use of information to target vulnerable groups of pupils
* Education and social sevices departments should share information and clarify roles and