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Truants still on the run

Michael Shaw on the very modest results of the Government's crackdown on absenteeism.

Truancy rates have fallen only fractionally in England for the second year running despite a national crackdown on non-attendance and the fast-track prosecutions of parents.

Figures published by the Department for Education and Skills show the proportion of half-days missed through unauthorised absence fell by 0.01 percentage points in the 20022003 school year.

The Government estimates the average number of children missing school every day without permission dropped by 712 to around 50,543, although this is partly the result of a fall in pupil numbers.

Education minister Ivan Lewis admitted the reduction was only a "modest improvement". But he said it was "equivalent to almost an entire secondary school back in education daily".

The figures suggest the Government is likely to miss a second target for truancy after failing its aim of cutting the problem by a third by 2002.

It had introduced a less ambitious target of reducing truancy by a tenth by 2004. This would mean that the proportion of half days missed because of truancy was less than 0.65 per cent. However, last year the figure dropped only from 0.72 to 0.71.

Last summer the Government began the first phase of a pound;470 million project to improve pupil behaviour and attendance, which included stationing police officers in schools and national truancy sweeps in town centres by police and education officers.

Local education authorities prosecuted dozens of parents whose children had played truant, with a handful receiving jail sentences.

A fast-track system was also introduced which was supposed to result in court appearances by parents within 12 weeks of their child's first unauthorised absence.

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives said the Government would miss its target because children were uninterested in the curriculum.

Damian Green, shadow education secretary, said: "Ministerial initiatives and large sums of taxpayers' money are visibly failing to solve this crisis.

"It is clear that for too many children what they learn in school is just not relevant."

But Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said that parents were to blame.

"More work has to be done to discourage those parents who condone truancy by taking their children out of school for holidays, shopping trips and to wait for the gas man," she said.

The DfES said early indications suggested that the improvements in attendance had been strongest in the 34 authorities taking part in the intensive behaviour improvement programme, all of which had high rates of truancy and crime in the past.

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