POOR TEACHING and boring lessons are to blame for rising levels of secondary school truancy, Ofsted said today.
Standards of leadership and the quality of the curriculum are also key factors influencing attendance, inspectors said.
Moves to give schools more legal powers to curb truancy rates have failed to reach the most disaffected children, they found.
Inspectors also found a strong relationship between social deprivation and low attendance.
The findings come from a study of secondary schools taking part in a Government drive to cut unauthorised absences, which have soared in recent years. Inspectors also analysed inspections carried out during 2005-06.
While overall absences have fallen, truancy rates in secondary schools have risen from 1.07 per cent of half days missed in 2002-03 to 1.42 per cent in 2005-06. Figures released last week showed that trend continuing this year, with the rate reaching 1.61 per cent during the spring term.
Inspectors found a correlation between the quality of teaching and rates of attendance. In interviews with 300 pupils, students also said boring lessons influenced their attendance.
Christine Gilbert, chief inspector of schools, said: "More needs to be done to tackle unauthorised absence and persistent truancy.
"High quality lessons, strong leadership and management and a curriculum that meets pupils' needs effectively can have a significant impact on attendance."
John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said putting too much focus on the quality of teaching was "one dimensional".
New legal powers, such as fixed penalty notices and prosecutions, proved effective deterrents in some schools, but failed to improve attendance for the most disaffected children. Automated truancy phone calls, which parents receive relentlessly until they answer, had been effective in improving attendance in some cases, the report said.
Middlesbrough suffers some of the worst levels of unauthorised absence in England, with 2.3 per cent of half days missed in its schools on average, well above national levels.
But one of the city's schools, Hall Garth, has improved its attendance from 87 per cent to 90 per cent over the past three years.
Stephen Taylor, its headteacher, said the reasons for truancy were more complicated than poor teaching. Having a varied curriculum, treating pupils as individuals and making sure they understood the ground rules were also important.
The cost of public transport was also a factor, he said.
"It can cost children pound;15 a week to get to school in Middlesbrough. If your family has no money and it's raining, what do you do?"
Part of the rise in truancy rates can be explained by the different ways schools record absences, inspectors said.
Ofsted and the Department for Children, Schools and Families drew up a list of 351 secondary schools where overall absence rates during 2004-05 were unsatisfactory. A targeted approach with these schools the following year cut by 27 per cent the number of persistent truants, who are described as pupils missing at least 20 days of school a year.
The schools taking part were given help to audit their attendance figures, which should be extended to all schools, Ofsted said.
Kevin Brennan, the Children's Minister, said changes to the secondary curriculum and the introduction of diplomas would create a more flexible curriculum. "These measures will help us to boost attendance and also lower the number of young people not in education or training," he said.
* 'Attendance in Secondary Schools', www.ofsted.gov.uk
THE INSPECTORS' VERDICT
* Schools need better systems to ensure that pupils catch up with their work after an absence. Too often it is left to individual teachers to shoulder the responsibility.
* Teachers should focus on pupils whose attendance is marginally above 90 per cent as well as those below that figure.
* Attendance improved when pupils were given individual mentors who showed genuine concern.
* Schools had most success in improving attendance when they worked together with other services, such as local authorities and police.
* Some schools benefited from explaining to pupils the effect that poor attendance will have on their exam results.