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Pagers to track truants

Bunking off school is to become increasingly difficult as the Government harnesses communication technology to track truants down, inform their parents and, it is hoped, persuade them that the classroom is where they really want to be.

Stephen Byers, the standards minister, announced this week that Pounds 22 million is to be spent over the next two years on grants for local authority schemes to combat truancy and reduce the number of exclusions. The move is the first attempt to translate the aims of the new Social Exclusion Unit into action, and the money will come from the section of the Standards Fund set aside for improving behaviour and attendance.

The projects include giving parents in Durham electronic pagers so that the school can contact them immediately if their child hasn't turned up, special tutors to work one-to-one with Devon children who are reluctant to go to school and, in Bristol, mentors for black pupils in an attempt to establish better links between families and school and reduce exclusions.

Mr Byers said: "If our youngsters are not in the classroom they are not learning." Action on absence was urgent, he emphasised, because more than 1 million pupils were absent without permission in 1996-97, and more than half of these were primary pupils. Also, during the previous year, 12,500 pupils were permanently excluded from school, an increase of 13 per cent on the previous year.

The Government hopes that these local projects will mesh with plans for home-school contracts and behaviour support plans to provide a comprehensive school attendance policy.

* Ministers have approved a separate Pounds 22m package helping to make schools safer, in response to recommendations by the working group on school security 18 months ago.

The initiative includes guidance to teachers on dealing with intruders and troublemakers in and around school premises. It outlines the law relating to trespass and the possession of offensive weapons, liaising with police and developing school security strategies.

The grant - which includes Pounds 2m for grant-maintained schools - comes on top of Pounds 6m allocated for similar purposes in the autumn.

The new money will be earmarked for security measures such as closed-circuit television, new fences or training staff in personal safety techniques.

Announcing the grant, education junior minister Estelle Morris said: "Maintaining a secure environment both for pupils and for teachers is crucial . . . Nuisance, disturbance, vandalism and other problems are all too common in our schools and the guidance will be an invaluable source of information, which helps to ensure that the laws available are better understood and more consistently applied."

The working group was set up two years ago following the death of Philip Lawrence, the London headteacher who was stabbed outside his school. One of its recommendations, published in May 1996, was that the Government should make specific grants available for the improvement of school security.

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