Less than 50 per cent of councils have taken the parents of absent children to court since laws were passed to improve attendance in schools six years ago, according to new Government research.
Schools and local authorities are not using tough legal powers available to them to stop children truanting because they think they are ineffective, the findings reveal.
Some teachers and council officers believe penalty notices, parenting orders and parenting contracts - which fine and jail those who care for truants - alienate families, it says.
School and local authority scepticism and lack of training were the main barriers to the use of the law to combat truancy, according to Kathryn Crowther and Sally Kendall from York Consulting LLP, who wrote the Department for Education-commissioned report.
The researchers looked at national data for the use of truancy laws, surveyed all local authorities and looked in depth at 10 case studies.
Two-fifths of councils said they avoided using the law for absence because of "concerns about the potential impact on relationships with parents".
Between 2004 and 2008, half of all local authorities did not use parenting contracts and 92 per cent had not used penalty notices for behaviour. Previous research shows that no local authority had used a parenting order for behaviour since they were introduced in 2004 and 40 per cent had not used parenting contracts.
There is "no statistical evidence" to suggest using the law reduces the number of permanent or fixed-term exclusions, the report says.
The 75 out of 152 councils that had taken parents to court prosecuted an average of 51 families for truancy every year. Only a quarter of local authorities said they were planning to use parenting orders in the next six months. Officers said they were "unsure" about them and did not think they were "effective".
The parents of pupils entitled to free school meals and those with special educational needs were more likely to be prosecuted. Parenting contracts helped to raise pupil attendance from 48 per cent to 78 per cent within three months, but researchers found their impact was "varied". A quarter of local authorities are not using them because staff thought they are "not effective".
A quarter of councils said penalty notices were not being used because of lack of resources or money, and because of "uncertainty of their usefulness".
One-tenth of councils said they were planning on using parenting orders, but a third said they were "doubtful" of their usefulness. Only 12 local authorities had used them - those who had avoided orders and penalty notices said they did not have sufficient money or resources.
The impact of prosecution was hampered by the low level of punishments handed out by magistrates, local authorities told researchers. For example, many fines handed out were small. In addition, it was believed that court cases did not work for parents who had "no fear" of the law.
In cases where prosecution took place, average attendance before court cases was 24 per cent; three months after prosecution the figure was 68 per cent.
Researchers say parenting contracts and orders, used alone, "very rarely" help children with "entrenched attendance issues". For some families they have "little or no impact" and are more successful for children with less serious problems, such as being late.
Laying down the law
Orders, notices and contracts
Parenting orders, penalty notices and parenting contracts were introduced in February 2004 following the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003.
Parenting contracts are voluntary, written agreements between a parent and a school or local authority. The parent agrees to comply with the requirements in return for more support from the school.
Parenting orders are court orders made following a successful prosecution of a parent for failing to ensure that their child attends school regularly. Parents have to attend a parenting programme or course of counselling.
Penalty notices are fines imposed on parents of truant children. Councils can also use "fast track to attendance", whereby they order parents to make improvements in attendance. They can prosecute if this does not happen - this occurs in around half of cases.