TEACHER-training days have joined dental appointments and hamster-buying as an excuse given by parents found with children during truancy sweeps.
"I thought it was a training day," said one parent caught with a child during a truancy patrol in Surrey. The very same excuse was used in Monday's episode of EastEnders by school skiver Stephen Beale: "It's INSET day, innit," he said.
The true extent of parents' complicity in their children's absence is now emerging, as officials at the Department for Education and Skills gather the figures from recent nationwide truancy sweeps.
Overall, just under half (45 per cent) of the school-age children picked up during 210 sweeps of town and city centres were with parents - well short of the 80 per cent figure that so outraged the Prime Minister.
But the figure was very much higher in the case of primary-age children - more than 90 per cent were with their parents.
During recent patrols, many parents found with younger pupils did not consider their child's absence to be truancy. "They're not truanting. They're with me. I'm their mum," was one typical comment from a woman found shopping with her two daughters, aged 11 and nine, during a police sweep in the London borough of Islington.
DFES figures show that police and social workers stopped 627 primary and 1,483 secondary pupils out of school in 38 local education authorities at the end of April and beginning of May. These included the 34 authorities in high-crime areas singled out by ministers under a pound;66 million behaviour support programme.
Of those totals, 92 per cent of the primary-age children (575) and 26 per cent (389) of the secondary pupils were with their parents. Patrols of estates and residential areas usually found truants alone.
The link between truancy and crime is clearly shown by the Surrey patrol findings. Eighty of the children stopped were known to the police, including 16 of the young people who admitted to being truants, seven out of 14 permanently excluded pupils, and seven out of 14 pupils on fixed-term exclusions.
The county does not have a serious truancy problem compared with other, more deprived authorities. But it is struggling to raise its school attendance level from the current figure of 92 per cent to the target of 95 per cent.