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Table-topper for truancy once again

Clare Dean finds the authority with the worst record for secondary school absences is determined to improve. Newcastle holds the dubious honour of heading the league table of persistent truancy among secondary school pupils for the second year running.

While pupils across the country skip school for a national average 11 days, in Newcastle the average is nearly six weeks - a sixth of the school year.

The tables, published by the Department for Education alongside examination results, reveal serious problems of long-term truancy in schools in the North and London.

They highlight the worst authorities, and individual schools with problems. They show the proportion of half-days missed by pupils and - for the first time - both authorised and unauthorised absence.

Unlike last year, however, they do not include the proportion of pupils at school who missed at least half a day during the year. Former Education Secretary John Patten abandoned that particular indicator following widespread condemnation by teachers.

This year's tables disclose problems of persistent truancy in schools in Newcastle, Gateshead, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, and in the London boroughs of Southwark, Islington, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Haringey.

In other boroughs such as Coventry, secondary pupils were absent for three-and-a-half weeks without explanation, on average.

In Newcastle, secondary pupils played hookey for an average 29 days. In primary schools in the city they were absent without explanation for an average 4.5 days.

Darren Murphy, the authority's education vice-chair, said: "There are no excuses for school truancy. Too many days are lost in this city because of poor attendance - we are determined to help schools reverse this trend."

Newcastle is one of 86 local authorities given Government money for truancy watch schemes and this week appealed to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard for continued funding. It sent her a training video made to inform shop workers how to approach and deal with potential truants.

The video also looks at why truancy is a problem for the whole community and includes frank interviews with pupils who explain why they find truancy so attractive.

"Tackling truancy must be part of the city's efforts for regeneration and job creation," said Mr Murphy.

"Sadly, the problem has been worsened by a generation of children who have witnessed their parents and sisters attending school only to face a future on the dole.

"There can be no doubt that high truancy and low achievement are linked to poverty and deprivation. Just as much of our city has become poorer over the last 15 years, so the number of truants has become greater."

The London boroughs of Southwark and Islington followed Newcastle with the highest incidences of persistent truancy, with pupils in the two boroughs skipping school for an average 19 days - almost four weeks.

The greatest percentage of half-day unauthorised absence in secondary schools was recorded in Southwark, which is also involved in a truancy watch scheme.

Two schools with particular problems were Aylwin, where pupils played truant for an average 12.6 half-days, and Dick Sheppard, a failing school which is about to be closed by the LEA, where pupils missed 12.3 half-days without explanation.

From January all Southwark schools - including grant-maintained - will be issued with a common pass for absence, and children stopped by police will be asked to show it.

The authority is to start a termly draw for pupils who achieve 100 per cent attendance, with prizes including vouchers for keep-fit or bowling sessions as well as a helpline for parents. Manchester, second to Newcastle last year, recorded the highest number of authorised absence among secondary pupils - 22 days, closely followed by Knowsley (20.5 days) and Lambeth (19.5 days).

Two schools in Manchester had the greatest incidence of truancy in individual schools in England. At Whalley Range High, pupils were absent without explanation for an average seven days, while at Ducie High it was 12.8 half-days.

Moston Brook in Manchester, which had the worst problem of persistent truancy last year, improved its position from 21.5 half-days to 8.8.

Kath Fry, Manchester's education chair, disputed the accuracy of the tables, saying a third of schools in the city did not complete their returns for Government.

Last year, the city had a Pounds 500,000 Government anti-truancy grant cut despite its problems. She said: "We need some help from central Government. This is a resources issue, it is not just about the will to do well."

In the primary sector, the biggest problem of persistent truancy was in the London borough of Newham, where the average unauthorised absence was two weeks, compared to the national average 5.5 days.

Ian Harrison, education director, criticised the methodology of the tables and said: "We are disappointed these figures show us at the bottom of the primary league table. They distract from the success we have had at tackling secondary truancy, into which we have put substantial resources . . . this work has been rewarded by a drop of 13 per cent." Manchester, and the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, followed with an average nine days.

The highest incidence of authorised absence in primary schools occurred in Birmingham - 13.5 days in a year - and the London boroughs of Camden and Tower Hamlets, both of 13 days.

Grace Cheese, general secretary of the National Association of Social Workers in Education, said: "It is essential that figures about actual attendance rates are put into a local context.

"We know, for example, that in areas where lots of pupils visit their families overseas, the attendance rate will be lower.

"This does not necessarily mean that the school's performance is poor or that there are high rates of truancy."

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