Children caught on truancy sweeps are often with parents
Truancy in England has not fallen even though £885m has been spent on boosting attendance, an auditors' report says.
The school truancy rate is the same as in 1997 - 0.7% - but fewer children are missing classes for authorised absences such as illness or holidays.
A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) calls for central government to work more closely with local councils and schools to cut absence.
It says efforts to tackle the problem are starting to have an impact.
The NAO says the Department for Education and Skills has spent £885m on schemes to tackle absences since 1997.
A further £560m is ear-marked to be spent on dealing with the problem in 2005 and 2006.
Since 1997, the overall rate of absence, which includes authorised absences for illness or family holidays as well as truancy, has fallen from 7.6% to 6.7% of school days.
That means about 450,000 of England's 6.7 million state school pupils are missing school each day. About 50,000 of these are playing truant.
The NAO's report said: "Attendance needs to be managed because, while absent, young people are not benefiting from education to the value of £1.6bn each year.
"Pupils with high absence rates are much more likely to leave school with few or no qualifications and they are more at risk of being drawn into undesirable activities, including crime and anti-social behaviour."
However, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly told the BBC Radio Four's Today programme the government was making progress.
"I think this government is actually the first government ever to take this problem seriously and we are starting to have an impact," she said.
But she accepted there was a "hard core of persistent truants", who represent around 2% of the country's 6.7m pupils.
"We really need, somehow, to get to grips with those persistent truants," she said.
Ms Kelly said the main thing the government had done was to give local authorities the power to tackle this problem.
The government would soon be unveiling plans for more vocational training for pupils turned off by the existing curriculum.
It wants to reduce the overall absence rate to 6.28% by 2008.
The NAO called for more efforts to be directed at primary school level, to stop children developing bad habits of skipping school. Parents' negative attitudes to education also needed to be challenged.
Early indications were that schemes designed to tackle poor attendance were having an effect.
It assessed various projects, including the increased use of prosecution (some evidence that it is a deterrent) and a fixed penalty scheme, whereby the parents of truants can be fined £100 (too early to say).
Under a scheme called the behaviour improvement programme - where problems of behaviour and truancy are tackled together - overall absence rates at schools involved fell twice as fast as the national rates.
'Fear of bullying'
But the shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, called it a "devastating independent report".
"We have to put this in context: the government is spending an awful lot of money and not getting a lot for it," he said.
He said all the government had succeeded in doing was reducing the number of authorised absences, such as where a parent gains permission for a child to go on a holiday.
"But they had made no progress at all ... in reducing unauthorised absence which is what we should all be worried about, which is truancy," he said.
Total rates of absence have fallen
Fear of bullying was one main "driving force" behind truancy and the Conservatives aimed to fight this by "cracking down on indiscipline in schools".
Providing alternative vocational training for 14 and 15-year-olds was another important move.
The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Phil Willis, said: "Seven years of tough government rhetoric and meaningless targets have done nothing to tackle the truancy epidemic in our schools."
It was time to tackle the causes of truancy rather than focus on penalties.
What was needed were smaller class sizes that gave teachers more time with each pupil, better flexibility between academic and vocational courses and reforming the curriculum so young people saw school as relevant.