White girls are more likely to skip school than pupils from almost any other group, according to a new study which overturns assumptions about attendance.
The report follows the revelation that unauthorised absence rose last year in spite of a multi-million pound campaign by the Government to cut truancy.
The National Foundation for Educational Research examined the patterns of attendance of pupils at 343 schools in urban areas taking part in the Excellence in Cities scheme.
It found that girls had lower overall attendance than boys. Girls missed an average of 26.9 half days each year with permission, compared to boys' 25.6 half days. They were also fractionally more likely to be absent without permission, missing 4.9 days annually to boys' 4.8.
John Bangs, head of education and equal opportunities for the National Union of Teachers, said he feared that many parents were sanctioning their daughters absence and forcing them to stay at home. "Some may be staying away because they feel persecuted," he said. "But a greater reason may be that many parents still expect girls to carry out family duties and to stay at home to look after younger children."
Simon Rutt, one of the authors of the NFER report, said that although girls missed more days of school, their exam results seemed to be less damaged than boys' by their absence. Girls regularly score higher. "This is the first time we have collected this kind of data, and there are some differences which go against what people might expect," he said. "More research would need to be done to see if, say, girls need fewer days at school than boys to obtain the same results."
Analysis of different ethnic groups reveals that white girls had the highest levels of authorised absence. White children's overall attendance was also significantly worse than that of Black Caribbean, Black African, Indian and Chinese pupils.
However, Black Caribbean boys, Bangladeshi children and Pakistani girls were more likely to miss lessons without permission than white girls.
Figures published last week revealed that the Government missed a modest target for cutting truancy by a tenth between 2002 and 2004. Instead, unauthorised absence rose last year, with 2,000 more pupils out of school.
But a fall in authorised absences meant that overall attendance was up by 17,000.
The Department for Education and Skills plans to set no more targets for unauthorised absence and aims to reduce overall school absence by 8 per cent by 2008.
Stephen Twigg, education junior minister, highlighted a finding from the NFER research which showed that 2 per cent of pupils were responsible for nearly half of the unauthorised absence in schools.
He said that the DfES would be cracking down on them by encouraging authorities to prosecute parents.
However, a separate NFER report suggests that fast-track prosecutions are often ineffective or inappropriate against the most persistent truants. The study concluded that the scheme, in which parents are sent to court in 12 weeks unless their child's attendance improves, worked best with pupils who had only missed a small number of school days.
Analysis of Pupil attendance data in EiC areas and Evaluation of fasttrack to prosecution are at www.dfes.gov.uk