The Executive drew some comfort from the latest figures on school attendance this week, but it is unclear yet whether levels of pupil absenteeism have hit a plateau or are on a downward trend. There are also clear indications that schools do make a difference.
Total absences in primaries represented 5.12 per cent of half-day sessions in the last school year, the second lowest in eight years, although rates have see-sawed.
Absences in secondaries were 10.75 per cent of half-day sessions, the lowest figure since 1995-96, since when there have also been fluctuations.
But Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, was in little doubt that the figures highlighted "a gradual and declining trend in absence from school".
He underlined the low rate of unauthorised absences, which includes truancy, at 0.8 per cent last session.
Authorised absenteeism, either approved by the school or condoned by parents, also appears to be on the decline, particularly in secondary where it is at the lowest level for eight years (9.32 per cent).
Mr Peacock said he nonetheless wants to see further reductions in both categories of absence. He acknowledged more strongly than his predecessors that disaffection with school is not always the fault of the pupils themselves or their parents but can be laid at the door of what schools offer. The curriculum review was therefore important, he said, as were improved links with colleges to give pupils a broader choice.
The figures mean that on an average day last session there were 52,000 pupils absent from school, of whom 5,600 were unauthorised, compared with 53,000 and 5,800 in 2001-02. Absenteeism amounted to two school weeks lost out of 38 in primary and four weeks in secondary.
Regional patterns remain much as they have since the tables were first published, with East Renfrewshire recording the lowest absenteeism (3.7 per cent in primary and 6.2 per cent in secondary), and Glasgow the highest (7.1 per cent in primary and 14.3 per cent in secondary) - although Clackmannanshire topped the unauthorised absence tables in both primary and secondary.
For the first time the statistics show the clear links between free school meal entitlement, indicating poverty levels, and absenteeism. While most schools are clustered as would be expected, there are significant variations. One secondary with nearly half its pupils on free meals had a 5 per cent absence rate while another in similar circumstances had over 20 per cent of pupils off school..
The Executive also published figures on costs this week, which show an extra pound;311 per pupil being spent on primary, secondary and special schools. This amounted to total local authority expenditure on education of pound;3.3billion in 2001-02, 8 per cent up on the previous year.
But the figures reflect higher costs in remote areas and factors such as local political energy in closing schools, as well as increased spending.
The pound;2,674 spent on each primary pupil, for example, reaches pound;4,840 in the Western Isles. And the pound;3,938 average per secondary pupil is more than pound;6,000 in Shetland and the Western Isles.