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Tony Blair's fourth `R'

Tony Blair is frequently accused of trying to walk off with the Tories' most fashionable clothes. The accusation was levelled at him again last week when he modelled his seemingly pinstripe-suited views on combating truancy. Attendance at school is "non-negotiable", he now says bluntly. Parents have to appreciate that if they fail in their duty to ensure their child is educated they may be taken to court. Furthermore, a "culture of responsibility" has to be fostered by schools - "Responsibility is the fourth 'R' that should be taught".

The Labour leader, of course, asserts that, far from trying Conservative policies on for size, he is actually pulling on the mantle of his party's founders. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that his SpectatorAllied Dunbar lecture was mainly aimed at two specific audiences: light-blue Tories who might consider defecting, and Labour voters who want to know the rationale behind the emphasis on "duty" in the new Clause 4. Nevertheless, his credo will be welcomed in most staffrooms because experience has shown that no matter how exemplary schools' approach to attendance is, if parents condone truanting this particular battle can never be won.

Conservative ministers have been saying similar things for years but they have not talked about parental duty with Blair's passion. The Government has invested heavily in anti-truancy initiatives - Pounds 14 million in grants last year - and it has not made the mistake of channelling all the funds into shopping-centre surveillance. Recognising that there is little point in shutting the stable door after the truant has bolted, Ministers have also provided cash for curriculum initiatives designed to give alienated pupils a reason for attending school. Even so, not enough attention has been given to the home-school contracts that the Labour leader wants to promote, or to early intervention.

Truancy is not a serious problem for most schools. The best evidence may suggest that 10 per cent of 16-year-olds "play" truant once a week but, overall, schools' absenteeism rates are considerably better than those in industry. As Tony Blair has said, however, there is no doubt that attendance could be improved. It is questionable whether courts are as formidable a deterrent as he seems to suggest (although parents can be fined up to Pounds 400 the average fine is no more than Pounds 50). But it is true that post-registration truancy could be virtually eliminated by more effective monitoring procedures within schools. Education welfare officers and teachers could also do more to discourage truancy if they were not so bogged down with the additional work that has stemmed from the Children Act and other reforms.

This problem has been recognised in Lothian (TES2, March 17) where each high school has youth strategy committees and teachers whose sole responsibility it is to ensure that disaffected pupils do not end up truanting or, worse, being excluded. It is not a cheap solution but it has led to a sharp fall in exclusions and residential school placements.

If Tony Blair wants to pursue his anti-truancy campaign and learn what can be done in practice he could do worse than "bunk off" from Westminster and spend a day in Edinburgh.

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