Despite countless initiatives, truancy is still rising. Stephen Lucas finds out how Birmingham bucked the trend
"They're getting restless now," says Chris Brolan, nodding towards two 13-year-olds caught truanting two hours ago in Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre by the city's Pupil Watch team.
One is firing a paper aeroplane made out of a Pupil Watch leaflet at the other.
The council's five-member team has helped Birmingham to buck the national trend. It is now cutting the proportion of pupils skipping school faster than any other city. Today the team should be scouring the city centre looking for truants to bus back to school.
But there has been a hiccup: the boys they have just picked up are from outside Birmingham and so the team will not bus them back to school. The patrol has been suspended while the team attempts to arrange for the families of the two boys to collect them.
Today, before they picked the latest pair up, they have stopped 25 children and taken two back to school. Mrs Brolan, the team's police liaison officer, said: "One of the mothers works. She asked if I could put her son in a taxi. I said no. He is only 13. He's very young. I think there will be discussions in their household tonight."
Pupil Watch runs two patrols a day on weekdays between 9am and 3.30pm, but Nici Scott-Moylan, the community co-ordinator in the team, wants to do more. "If we had a bigger team these two young men would not take up our whole time," she said.
The team is one part of the battle against truancy in the city. Education social workers also work with headteachers to determine which schools need support. Each month they make at least 40 visits to families whose children are truanting. Parents of truants can be issued with fixed-penalty notices and can face fines.
The city's approach to tackling truancy was praised by Sir David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, on Monday.
"Birmingham is using fixed-penalty notices and it has not had to prosecute any parent. The council put in the notice and it has worked in 776 out of 800 cases. It is a really good measure."
Sir David was speaking at a Commons hearing into a National Audit Office report which found that just over 0.7 per cent of pupils, around 50,000, are absent without permission each day, despite pound;885 million spent between 1997 and 2004 on anti-truancy initiatives.
The total proportion of pupils absent has fallen from around 7.5 per cent to below 7 per cent in the same period.
Sir David said he was disappointed truancy had not fallen: "We need to keep on trying. If they don't get the basics their chances in life are going to be poor."
According to Sir David 15 per cent of unauthorised absence is caused by parents taking children on holiday in term-time. The DfES has been in talks to see if travel agents can offer discounts during the school holidays if parents book early.
Introducing state boarding facilities at new city academies has also been considered as a means of combating truancy.