Why is Britain's level of truancy so high? Each day in England at least 50,000 pupils who should be in school are not. Despite Government pressure and initiatives, the figure has stayed stubbornly high since the mid 1990s. Why is it proving so difficult to get those pupils back into school?
The simple answer is that truancy is a complex problem. Solving it is not just a matter of bringing bad parents to their senses and rounding up city-centre strays - although these measures do help. It also involves tackling the disintegration of family life in some areas and the disaffection of many young people with a schooling system seen as hostile and irrelevant to their lives.
Ministers have also been slow to back up targets with action. The first widespread scheme to cut truancy was not launched until last spring, too late for the effects to show in the 2001-2 statistics. So perhaps it is not surprising that this year's figure showed no overall improvement. For England, the figure stayed at 0.7 per cent of half-day sessions missed, the same as it has been every year since 1995.
In Wales, rural poverty and industrial decline have created an even bigger problem. Its target was to cut the figure from 1.5 per cent to 1 per cent. But this year, it is 1.7 per cent, a slight increase on 2001. And these are just the levels to which schools own up. Everyone knows that many schools put down unjustified absences as authorised to improve their reputation. Many pupils also "bunk off" after registration.
Now ministers have set a new, modest target for England: to cut truancy by 10 per cent by 2004. Can even that be achieved? Well, perhaps. Amid the gloom there are signs of improvement.
The 2001-2 figures for England, may show no overall movement, but do reveal a significant, 2.3-point drop in truancy rates in areas covered by the Excellence in Cities programme. This programme, set up in 1998-99, now covers 58 urban areas. An army of 2,500 learning mentors is helping to re-engage teenagers and some 1,000 learning support units are giving help on site to pupils with behaviour problems who might otherwise slink off.
In April, this year, ministers announced a pound;66 million programme to tackle behaviour and truancy in 34 education authorities in areas of high street crime. Regular truancy sweeps, more learning support units, electronic registration and police in secondary schools are all likely to have an impact in those areas. Just before Christmas, Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced this programme would spread to all Excellence in Cities areas, eventually covering 800,000 children.
At the same time, the Government has introduced tougher legislation to penalise parents of truants, with a new offence of aggravated truancy that can land parents with a fine of up to pound;2,500 andor three months in jail. Fast-track prosecution is being piloted in six authorities giving parents just 12 weeks to ensure a child attends school or face prosecution.
That is now to be backed up by new fines for parents who allow children to miss school - to be imposed by education welfare officers, police or heads.
These sanctions have been introduced because ministers, have been shocked by evidence of parental collusion with truancy. Sweeps in April picked up some 12,000 pupils, of whom about half - mostly primary pupils - were with a parent. Critics, such as LibDem education spokesman Phil Willis, dismiss such punitive measures as "quick fixes" that do nothing to tackle the underlying problems.
But they do work. When Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos was jailed in July for the persistent truancy of her two daughters, liberals were shocked. All over the country, however, long-lost pupils were reported to be turning up at school. Mrs Amos herself acknowledged she had been shaken into an awareness of her responsibilities. Her children are still in school.
But truancy expert Ken Reid cautions against lumping parents of all truants into one category. They range, he says, from the belligerent "anti-education" parent to the most vulnerable and desperate people in society. Prison or the threat of it works with some; others need help.
Local authorities are also resorting to a host of other measures, from hard-hitting posters on buses to the offer of free holidays, to drive home the importance of school attendance .
In the end, however, children will only go to school if it offers something worthwhile. Many truants are known to be put off by an academic curriculum. They feel alienated in classes where they cannot keep up - and where, even if they could, the subject matter seems irrelevant to their lives. "The main reason that Britain is at the top of the European truancy league is because schools lack a technical and vocational strand," says Professor Reid, of Swansea Institute of Higher Education.
So the Government initiative that offers the best long-term prospects of making inroads into truancy could be the White Paper on 14 to 19 schooling, including expanded vocational routes, out this month.
In the short-term, schemes for England need to be drawn into a coherent strategy. (A strategy for Wales is now going through the Welsh Assembly.) At present, says Professor Reid, the same area may be covered by three separate initiatives while other areas, just as disadvantaged, get nothing.
Another problem is that the service with statutory responsibility for school attendance - the education welfare service - is desperately stretched. Officers may be paid as little as pound;10-14,000 a year and many are leaving for better paid jobs elsewhere, such as in the new Connexions service (which co-ordinates advice and help for young people). Those left may be coping with as many as 300 attendance cases a year. Time for an overhaul of the service, says Professor Reid.
Letters, 27 Truancy: The Issue in next week's Friday