A South Wales local authority has achieved a remarkable turnaround in its school attendance rates after launching a "rapid response" policy that includes contacting parents on the same day their child is absent.
Last December, education officers at Torfaen council were shocked when official attendance statistics ranked the authority 19th out of Wales's 22 councils. It had plummeted from sixth place in 200607.
Levels of unauthorised absence in the county's secondary schools were particularly high compared to the rest of Wales, and two-thirds of its primary schools had less than 90 per cent attendance rates.
But schools are now working more closely with parents in an effort to stamp out unauthorised absences. As well as constantly emphasising the educational importance of regular attendance, schools now contact parents on the same day as an unauthorised absence to find out why a pupil is not in school. This has been backed up by regular truancy sweeps by police and education welfare officers.
The changes were brought in after the council drafted in behaviour expert Ken Reid to help revise its policies and train staff. The overall attendance rate is now just 0.6 per cent below the all-Wales average.
Professor Reid, who chaired the groundbreaking National Behaviour and Attendance Review for the Welsh Government, helped the council draw up a guidance document for schools, with an emphasis on early intervention.
Education welfare officer Graham Garland said: "The first-day response is the single most effective tool in raising school attendance. If we challenge a parent immediately . that child will most likely be in school the next day.
"In this way schools are taking ownership of their own attendance."
Each school has its own attendance target set by the governing body and agreed by the council.
Vicky Clode, senior education welfare officer, said: "All our schools are either meeting their current targets or they are just slightly off. I think they have embraced the changes."
Professor Reid said: "I have never seen such a swift turnaround in such a short space of time as I have in Torfaen. It's remarkable."
Torfaen drew up a strategy in 2008 that aimed to see a "significant increase" in attendance within three years, but officials admitted it was not given sufficient attention.
15 CRUCIAL MINUTES: `Massive impact'
The first-day contact policy has had a huge impact on attendance at Cwmffrwdoer Primary School in Pontypool.
In 200910, unauthorised absence at Cwmffrwdoer stood at 2.3 per cent, but it has fallen to just 0.4 per cent in the current academic year since September.
Head Richard Brunsdon said: "The amount of parents ringing the school to let us know their children weren't in wasn't particularly high.
"Now we gather the registers 15 minutes after they have been done and if there is any unauthorised absence we call parents straight away. It's had a massive impact."
Original headline: `Rapid response' strategy turns Torfaen truancy rates around