Reforms intended to curb the number of children skipping school have brought only handfuls back to class. Julie Henry reports
THOUSANDS of truants have felt the long arm of the law under new powers given to the police and local education authorities.
Truancy-busting patrols have swooped on town centres, shopping precincts and other truancy "hotspots" in at least 15 areas around the country under the October 1998 Crime and Disorder Act.
But the law has not led to dozens of "bunking" pupils being driven back to school in police vans.
Many of the children caught have been with their parents and, as a result, challenging "condoned absence" has become the primary aim of police and educational welfare teams.
Each year, at least one million children - around 15 per cent of all pupils - play truant, and the equivalent of eight million school days are lost, according to the Department for Education and Employment.
A Government crackdown on unauthorised absence aims to reduce rates by a third by 2002. Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has made it clear that parents who ignore truancy will be targeted.
Sandwell Council and West Midlands Police have been patrolling the streets twice daily since December in a two-year crime reduction initiative funded by a pound;60,000 Home Office grant.
About 450 children have been stopped so far, more than half of whom were accompanied by adults. Only a handful of pupils on their own have been returned to school.
Steve Martin, a senior welfare officer for Sndwell, said: "Much of what we see is not truancy in the traditional sense, it is actually parentally condoned absence.
"The initial intention of the law may have been to round up truants and return them to school but the educational process of speaking to parents has emerged as a major factor."
Three sweeps in Manchester since the law was introduced has collared nearly 600 children out of school. More than 300 were with adults. One 12-year-old stopped in the north of the city was working on a market stall.
Leicester's five spot-checks have quizzed 378 children - 69 per cent of them with their parents. Of those, 22 per cent were classed as absent without authorisation. Just 5 per cent of those stopped were returned to school.
Parents and children confronted with a uniformed police officer have used excuses such as being on shopping trips, visiting relatives and having lost bus passes.
One parent in Manchester was appearing on television's Stars in their Eyes and had taken her child with her. Another was taking her daughter to a Spice Girls' concert.
In many areas where the powers are being used unauthorised absence rates are dropping. But officials are reluctant to claim that the law is a panacea for stopping truancy. Leicester's senior welfare officer, John Broadhead, said: "The jury is still out about how effective the power is in cutting truancy. "Attendance in the city is going up but with truancy having such a high profile at the moment, the Act is one tool of many to address the problem."