DURING a recent "truancy sweep" at a midweek market held at Kempton Park racecourse, 91 children were found to be truanting - and 80 of them were with a parent or other relative. On any school day, 50,000 pupils in England are away from school without the schools' permission and in many cases, with their parents' knowledge.
Some of the reasons given to truancy officers for a child being out of school - the child is having her tongue pierced; they're choosing a hamster; it's their birthday - may be funny, but the results of truancy are anything but.
Persistent truants are heading for failure in school and later life. They are more likely to become homeless or end up in prison. A recent survey indicated that more than 70 per cent of children who did not attend school regularly admitted to at least one criminal offence.
We have set a target of cutting truancy by a third by 2002. Some schools have started to see big improvements in attendance levels. Valentines high school in Ilford has cut truancy by half in one academic year. They achieved this primarily by introducing first-day telephone calls to parents of pupils who are absent without a reason. An extra clerical assistant has been employed from the funds that we have made available.
Despite these successes, we recognise, and accept, that more work needs to be done. As part of a pound;174 million Department for Education and Employment programme in 2001-2, there will be more "truancy sweeps" involving patrols of police and education welfare officers to pick up youngsters who should be in school. These sweeps, a minimum of once a term, mean that pupils are returned to a designated place - a school or education centre - and their parents are informed. It is the first step in tackling truancy and the causes of crime, both early and head on.
We know that schools need support to combat truancy, too. Schools which succeed in cutting truancy in chllenging circumstances will have the chance to win a "Truancy Buster" award of up to pound;10,000. Schools are getting funding to employ more on-site attendance officers, and on-site learning mentors will join the battle.
We have also introduced a higher penalty for parents who know their child is failing to attend school regularly. A new aggravated offence, which will come into effect in March, will have a higher maximum fine of pound;2,500 andor imprisonment for up to three months. It will also let magistrates impose alternative sentences such as parenting orders under which parents must accompany their child to school or attend parenting classes.
If a child is truanting, schools and education welfare officers agree an action plan, with the parents, and that is monitored closely. Only if parents refuse to co-operate and fail to improve their child's attendance will legal proceedings be taken.
Over the next three years, pound;450 million will go via the Children's Fund towards supporting families, including help to prevent children from becoming truants. The Connexions Service will also be putting resources into increasing the numbers of pupils who stay on at school.
Young people will no longer be passed from pillar to post. There will be a personal adviser available to help young people find solutions and encourage them into learning or training.
We know from our pilot schemes that personal advisers help children. One beneficiary, David, has shown a remarkable transformation. He has started work experience with the community police, which has changed his offending behaviour. Seeing the police at work has given him a more empathetic view of them and his attendance at school has been excellent.
We are committed to raising standards in education for all our children. We can only achieve this if children are attending school regularly.
Jacqui Smith is an education junior minister