SCHOOLS will be obliged to set attendance targets under a new law aimed at cutting truancy.
Governing bodies of schools with poor records will have to set the target or have one imposed upon them by the Secretary of State under a new clause of the School Standards and Framework Bill.
The Department for Education and Employment estimates that one million children a year play truant and the Government, following the first report of its social exclusion unit, has pledged to reduce exclusions and truancy by one-third.
Sue Nicholson, National Association of Head Teachers assistant secretary, said: "Many absences are beyond the control of head- teachers and are often condoned by parents, for example taking holidays during term time. Heads do not have sufficient powers to ensure children attend school."
She said the social exclusion unit, believed to be the impetus for the new clause, should have looked at ways of sanctioning the parents of truants.
In County Durham an experiment involving giving pagers to the parents of constant offenders, so they can be contacted if their child fails to appear at school, has been extended across the education authority. John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston school and general secretary-elect of the Secondary Heads Association, has also introduced an electronic attendance system that marks pupils present at the beginning of every lesson.
He said many schools with truancy problems already set targets. "One of the problems of recording unauthorised absence is trying to define it," he said. "There is also a danger that by setting targets, for example five A to Cs at GCSE, you define a policy and only tackle the margins to bump up the figures rather than tackle the overall problem."
Eamonn O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, described the law as yet another example of the Government's target mania. He said: "Areas with high truancy levels often reflect an alienated youth, which is part of a wider social malaise."
The number of unauthorised absences is recorded as part of the performance league tables, but there is widespread concern that heads could easily fudge the figures.