Almost half a million pupils a day are truanting from school, costing the taxpayer pound;1.6 billion a year, the public spending watchdog has revealed.
A study from the National Audit Office shows that while levels of authorised absence had declined, pupils continue to truant.
This is despite government spending of pound;885 million over the past seven years on initiatives aimed at combating absenteeism.
Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons committee of public accounts, said he was disappointed that the Department for Education and Skills had "missed by a mile its targets to reduce truancy".
"This is an enormous amount of lost opportunity for the youngsters, who are missing out on precious education and qualifications. It is also hugely damaging to society," he said.
The Government wants truancy reduced by 8 per cent by 2008. Total absence in maintained school, which includes unauthorised absence, has already been reduced to 6.7 per cent of school days in 2003-4, the last year for which figures are available, from 7.6 per cent in 1994-5.
This reduction is the equivalent of about 60,000 more pupils back in school each day.
The NAO report, Improving school attendance in England, is based on visits to 17 schools, and interviews with headteachers, local authority staff and school inspectors.
It found that the total absence rate in 2003-04 was equivalent to 450,000 of the 6.7 million pupils in maintained schools in England not attending classes each day.
These pupils could fill 816 average-sized primary schools and 252 secondaries, the study said.
Authorised absenteeism in schools varied between less than 1 per cent to 30 per cent. Levels of unauthorised absence have remained steady at 0.7 per cent.
Schools with high numbers of pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds had the worst record. However, those with a high proportion of pupils from ethnic-minority backgrounds tended to have less truancy.
Illness, term-time holidays and medical appointments were the main reasons given for authorised absence.
Truancy was blamed on an uninspiring curriculum, learning difficulties, apathy, bullying and poor relationships with peers or teachers. Parental attitudes and pupils' home life also affected attendance, the NAO found.
Measures taken by schools and local authorities to tackle truancy had mixed results. Electronic registration had proved effective in tackling truancy, although 1,400 secondary and 10,700 primary schools continued to use manual systems. Truancy sweeps were deemed effective by more than half of education welfare officers, although 48 per cent said they were not cost-effective. Prosecution of parents was considered successful but costly by education welfare officers and headteachers, but not by parents or pupils.
One truant told researchers: "I should be the one standing up in the courtroom, not my mum. I'm 15 years old. You can't exactly drag me to school."
The report recommended schools develop strategies for improving attendance and that these be embedded in the day-to-day life of the school.
Parents, particularly those of primary pupils, should be persuaded of the need to ensure their children attend school to prevent escalation of the problem to secondary school.