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Wednesday, 9 October, 2002, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
No progress on truancy targets
New truancy figures show the problem is as bad as ever in England's schools - and the government has completely missed its target for tackling the problem.
There was only a slight fall in the number of children missing school in the year to the end of May, compared with the previous year.
The total number of absences from school of half a day, which is the way the issue is measured, dropped 0.3, to 7%, while the figure for unauthorised absences - truancy - remained static at 0.7%.
That amounts to more than 50,000 children at any one time - or 7.5 million school days per year, according to the Department for Education.
Each child who plays truant is absent for 13 days on average.
In May 1998, the prime minister's social exclusion unit announced a major initiative aimed at cutting truancy by a third by September 2002.
New measures included tougher criminal sanctions.
These meant that ultimately parents could be jailed for the non-attendance of their children.
At the time the Department for Education played down the possible jail sentence.
It said this was essentially a legal technicality to require parents to attend court - and stressed instead the maximum fine of £2,500.
But earlier this year a mother in Oxfordshire, Patricia Amos, was the first to be jailed over her daughters' persistent truancy.
Sensing that the 60-day sentence had served as a useful warning, ministers have since toughened their attitude.
Now they are warning parents who fail to stop their children playing truant that they will be "fast tracked" to the courts.
A pilot scheme to be run in six parts of England will give parents 12 weeks - a school term - to improve their children's attendance or face prosecution.
The areas involved have not yet been announced.
The Education Minister Stephen Twigg said on Wednesday: "We brought the laws in and we expect them to be used."
"We need to be absolutely clear about this: children cannot learn if they are truanting from school.
"There is also the risk that truants then drift into crime causing problems for their community and society in general."
Truancy "sweeps" of town centres throughout the country, involving police and educational welfare staff, are to be stepped up.
Ministers believe a campaign of sweeps in May this year was successful, but came too late to affect the most recent statistics.
The new, provisional figures for 2001/2 show a slight improvement in both primary and secondary schools.
Total absences in primary schools fell from 6.1% to 5.9%, with the truancy rate down from 0.5% to 0.4%.
The highest rate - 1.8% - is in the London borough of Southwark.
In secondary schools, the problem of truanting is greater and the average rate remains the same as last year - 1.1%, exactly the same as it was in 1997/98.
It varies from 3.1% in Knowsley and Nottingham, to 0.4% in Bedfordshire, Cornwall and Northumberland.
There will also be a national anti-truancy operation covering every major town and city in England during one week in December.
The shadow education secretary, Damian Green, said government policies plainly were not having any effect.
"Today's announcement of yet another 'crackdown' has the air of desperation about it," he said.
Rich and poor
The statistics show that the rate of truancy in independent schools is tiny - 0.1% - although the rate of authorised absence is 4%, compared with 7.6% in maintained secondary schools.
The head of the education department at the National Union of Teachers, John Bangs, said: "These sweeps must apply equally to Harrods as well as Woolworths.
"Any other approach would send a message that only pupils from certain areas are being targeted."
The then Schools Minister, Estelle Morris - now Education Secretary - launched an attack on truancy in 1998 at the annual conference of the Professional Association of Teachers.
Wider community issue
On Wednesday, its senior professional officer Alison Johnston expressed alarm at the latest figures.
"We welcome the greater use of truancy 'sweeps' and the government's 'fast track' scheme," she said.
"A great deal of teacher and support staff time is taken up with chasing up pupil absence, but truancy is not a problem that schools can tackle alone.
"Schools, parents and the wider community need to work in partnership to ensure that pupils attend school regularly."
She added: "The Patricia Amos case should be a warning that parents can be held responsible for their children's failure to attend school and taken to court - although imprisoning parents should be a last resort, as sending parents to prison has an adverse effect on family life."
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