Absence checks urged for city

5th March 1999 at 00:00
The first LEA to seek immediate action on missing pupils is meeting union resistance, reports Michael Prestage.

first-day absence checks for pupils are being strongly recommended for all Manchester schools, despite the reservations of teachers' unions.

Manchester is the first authority to adopt such a policy, suggested in Department for Education and Employment guidance last month. It has written to the headteachers of its 200-plus schools.

However, leading bodies representing teachers believe that there are practical problems, not least in terms of staff time and costs.

Andrew Cant, a spokesman for Manchester, said the policy had already been successfully established in a number of the city's schools.

He said: "While we can't require schools to do this kind of thing, we can encourage and demonstrate the benefits. If we can put before them both the attendance issue and the child protection issue, then those are compelling grounds."

The Government circular followed the incident involving two Hastings girls who went missing on their way to school. Their parents were not informed for eight hours. In Manchester itself, the child protection issue was further underlined with the death of Suzanne Rarity, aged eight, who died at the hands of her mother's lover in 1997.

Despite missing 13 consecutive days at school, she was never checked on by teaching staff. By the time her case was referred to welfare officers, she was dead.

Mr Cant said that while there may be resource and staffing implications, he had found that in some schools absence checks were made without additional staff costs by re-examining the responsibilities of non-teaching staff.

While recognising there would be some practical problems - many families in Manchester are not on the phone, for instance -Mr Cant believes this policy will feature strongly in future government thinking about attendance.

The Secondary Heads Association said it was a policy that could not be introduced without the financial consequences being examined.

A SHA spokesman said: "This can be done in practice, but the cost in terms of time and money is huge. In a large secondary school it is impractical. What we are seeing is an over-reaction to a very unfortunate incident."

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said this was an example of a policy conjured in the invented world of Whitehall rather than the real world in which schools operated.

He said: "However tragic an individual case may be, it is foolish to over-react to the situation. If schools were better supported with extra staff these checks could be made. As it is, they will be another burden on teachers."

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