A London borough got tough when absence figures reached double the national average. Amanda Kelly reports
IT'S 9.23am and Sergeant Peter Day and the rest of Westminster's truancy patrol team have just spotted their first suspect. A young boy ambles along London's leafy Marlborough Hill, apparently in no great hurry. A white 15-seater Metropolitan police van pulls up and an education welfare officer and a member of the council's youth offending team leap out.
The 10-year-old tells them that he has been to see his doctor and is now on his way to school. But he has no excuse letter so the officers decide to escort him to the gates.
Meanwhile, around the corner, four older boys are loitering outside South Hampstead station. They insist they are on their way to lessons, although curiously they have no school bags.
"I overslept," explains one. "My train was late," says another. "I had a nosebleed and had to wait for it to stop before I could leave home," says a third.
They are ushered into the van and driven back to Quintin Kynaston secondary where headteacher Nick Kemp informs them they will be kept in a one-hour detention as a punishment for missing two lessons.
Westminster Council and the Metropolitan police set up their monthly truancy patrol a year ago to reduce the high number of youngsters "bunking off" lessons. In 199899, 3.1 per cent of half days were missed due to unathorised absence in the borough's secondaries and 0.9 per cent in primaries, compared to a national average of 1.1 and 0.5 per cent respectively.
Despite being home to the country's political nerve centre and some of London's wealthiest citizens, the borough also has run-down housing estates, home to the majority of the truanting youngsters.
Education welfare officer Tom Manneh said: "One of the biggest problems is that the child's absence is often condoned by the parents and that makes it much harder to deal with.
"A lot of the kids around here are from refugee or asylum-seeking backgrounds and their parents keep them at home to act as interpreters or carers. Sometimes their families simply do not see the point of sending their chldren to school."
His point is illustrated moments later when the team pick up a 13-year-old pupil from a different school walking to the shops to get a newspaper. Like the nine other children the patrol had spoken to by lunchtime, he seems unfazed when the police van pulls up alongside him. He says his parents have allowed him the day off to go Christmas shopping. A visit to his home confirms that his mother and father were the ones who encouraged him to stay at home.
Sergeant Day said: "A patrol like this can only do so much and it is a public relations exercise as much as anything else. It sends a message out to the children, their parents and the wider community that we are taking the problem seriously.
"But to make a real difference, it needs all the agencies to work together with the child and family to get to the bottom of why they don't want to go to school."
* UNDER Section 16 of the 1988 Crime and Disorder Act, which came into effect last February, the police may remove truants from the streets if they have "reasonable cause" to believe that they are absent from school without good reason.
* Each year more than a million children truant and around 50,000 pupils are absent without permission on any given day.
* In London, it is estimated that 5 per cent of all offences are committed by children during school hours.
* A week-long truancy sweep in Stratford, east London, last year saw recorded crime drop by 50 per cent. Car crime in particular fell by 70 per cent.
* Home Office research shows that 75 per cent of boys and 50 per cent of girls who play truant once a week or more have committed offences.
* A study showed that 44 per cent of truants believed their parents knew they were truanting.
* The Government has devoted pound;500 million towards its target of reducing the numbers of truants by a third by 2002.
* Parents of persistent truants can be fined up to pound;5,000 and ordered to appear in court.
* The Government has set up an annual celebration for the 50 schools in England who have done most to reduce truancy. Winners are awarded pound;10,000 each.