David Blunkett recently hit the headlines when he asked travel agents not to encourage parents to take children on holiday during term-time.
Recent Government figures show massive differences in levels of both authorised and unauthorised absences across the country.
Apart from inner London, both authorised and unauthorised absence rates tend to be higher in the north of England than in the South. The highest rates of authorised absence were in Merseyside where "the average number of half days missed per absent pupil" was 30 half days or about 8 per cent of the school year.
Lowest authorised absence rates were in the South-east, and eastern areas.
The South-west was the only region where authorised absence rates rose between 199697 and 199798, despite a change in definition that allowed work experience or school trips to be deemed equivalent to being present at school rather than an authorised absence.
Unauthorised absence rates are still below the peaks of 199394 but are once again on the rise in some areas.
Falls in the average number of unauthorised half days missed per absent pupil in the North-east and inner London were countered by rises in Merseyside, Yorkshire and the Humber, the South-east and the South-west.
On the alternative measure of per cent of half days missed there was also a more general rise across much of the country with the figure for England as a whole increasing from 1 per cent in 199697 to 1.1 per cent in 199798.
It is clear that a school's achievements are related to attendance levels.
Only 22.7 per cent of pupils in secondary schools with total absence rates of 12 per cent or more gained five GCSE A*-C grades, compared with 69 per cent of pupils in the schools with the lowest absence rates.
The sad fact is that more than 15 per cent of secondary schools in England had overall absence rates in excess of 12 per cent, while only just over 13 per cent had absence rates below 6.5 per cent.
Of course, absence is only one element in a complex picture, but it does suggest that schools seem to work best where pupils can see a purpose for education. Where unemployment rates are high, education may still not be seen by many pupils, and sometimes their parents, as having nothing to offer and certainly not worth forgoing a discount trip in term time.
John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an education research company. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Average number of half daysmissed per pupil, 199798
TIME TO CANCEL YOUR HOLIDAY?
North East 26 26
North West 27 23
Merseyside 30 25
The Humber 27 24
East Midlands 25 22
West Midlands 26 19
Eastern 24 16
Inner London 27 23
Outer London 25 19
South East 24 17
South West 25 14
England 26 20