Children often disappear from school because they cannot keep up with the coursework requirements of GCSE, according to headteachers surveyed by the Office for Standards in Education.
In the main, heads believe most absence from school is caused by illness or problems at home, but they identify a significant group of pupils who stay away because they cannot cope with the work.
In particular, the pressure of GCSE coursework deadlines leads to the disaffection of some 16-year-olds. A minority of the age group are lost to the system, says the report.
The survey, which looked at 34 secondary schools, found that high attendance is closely related to exam success. In schools with unsatisfactory or poor results, a strong correlation with low attendance rates is discernible. The survey suggests schools should pay greater attention to matching work to the abilities of pupils.
While pastoral staff are generally concerned to support pupils whose attendance is irregular, the report suggests they should accept greater responsibility for supporting pupils' learning, as well as caring for their emotional and social needs.
The report is also critical of a small minority of schools which mask or validate long-term absence, particularly by 16-year-olds, by recording pupils as being on study leave.
Most schools try to avoid formally excluding pupils and arrangements are usually made for excluded 16-year-olds to take their GCSEs.
However, the report cites the example of a school where almost 20 per cent of 16-year-olds were not receiving any education. The governors had agreed to allow 25 16-year-olds to be removed from the school roll and a further five were said to have dropped out of their own accord.
Inspectors found that some 16-year-olds are leaving before the legal leaving date. Some had started work; some disappeared for months at a time and not even their parents knew where they were.
There is evidence that social factors play a part in the success of a school that achieves both good attendance and good exam results, but the survey says that some schools can promote achievement in the most difficult of circumstances.
In terms of improving attendance, the report suggests schools may get better results from reducing the number of GCSEs per pupil and concentrating on doing those well. When long-term absentees return to school, there is little evidence that schools plan individual programmes to promote sustained re-integration.
In a separate report, OFSTED has surveyed the work of the education welfare service, which is mainly concerned with tackling the problem of truants. According to that report, the effectiveness of education welfare officers is heavily dependent on the quality of support provided by the local education authority.
The ratio of education welfare officers to pupils can range from one to every 1,200 pupils to one for every 7,000 pupils. The size of the service depends on education budgets and the value the local education authority places on the service.
The problem for the education welfare service is that it is heavily dependent on schools supplying absence data. Few schools are able to provide suitable accommodation for EWOs even though they require access to a space where the confidentiality of the client can be assured.
The reports Access, achievement and attendance in secondary schools. and The challenge for education welfare. are available from the Office for Standards in Education Publications Centre, PO Box 6927, London E3 3NZ.