Performance tables: 'Outside factors' to blame for truancy record

The three schools topping the truancy table - Warleigh School, Bath, St Paul's College, Birmingham and Lennox Lewis College in London - all specialise in helping pupils with a history of non-attendance. The headteachers are understandably exasperated to find themselves leading such a list.

The next 10 schools include four deemed to be failing by the Office for Standards in Education. The news that schools in trouble are also likely to have a large number of pupils missing lessons is no surprise, although the fact that The Ridings, supposedly the worst school in the country, is quite a way down the table, at number 15, is worth noting.

The mainstream school with the worst truancy figures is Bowling Community School (formerly Fairfax), in Bradford, with 12. 6 per cent half-days unauthorised. Bowling is officially registered as a failing school. The head, Glynis Gower, said the school has a new anti-truancy programme.

In second position, with 11.8 per cent unauthorised half-days off, is St Gregory's RC High School, serving the Ancoats district of Manchester. The head, Stephen Sexton, believes that factors outside the school's control can distort figures. He points out that, ironically, schools with the strictest definitions of unauthorised absence, and those that are most scrupulous in reporting them, are penalised.

"We do have a hard core of pupils who are persistently absent, and the large number of days they take off sends the figures shooting up. But I don't believe our truancy problem is particularly bad overall. "

The problem is that any unauthorised absence counts, but the absence is not necessarily a result of truancy. "This school serves an area of chronic poverty with large numbers of parents who move in and out of rented accommodation. When they move, they do not always tell us, so the pupils are marked as absent without leave for weeks until they turn up in another school. The rules say that I have to keep marking them absent if I don't know where they are. Not to do so would be illegal.

"I will not authorise an absence unless it falls within the guidelines - a half-day off to buy shoes is not acceptable." He believes other schools may have a more fluid approach, "but as a Catholic head of a Catholic school, I refuse to falsify the truth".

Mary Waplington, acting head of St Richard of Chichester in Camden, agrees that schools do implement the requirements in very different ways. "Here, we are fairly strict: an absence is defined as unauthorised unless we have a note from the parent or proof in the form of a medical note. We also have a problem with several long-term truants who push up our average."

Schools with large numbers of pupils from non-English speaking backgrounds, she said, are at a disadvantage because parents are less able to write notes or communicate with the school.

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