Truancy rates in England's secondary schools rose by more than 10% last year, according to government figures.
Persistent truants in 146 schools are to be targeted
Despite £900m spent on anti-truancy initiatives, the annual figures show the highest truancy rates since 1994.
Unauthorised absences rose to 1.25% in 2004-05 from 1.13% in 2003-04 - with 55,000 pupils missing lessons each day.
The government is now threatening fast-track court action against parents of a "hard core" of 8,000 truants - unless attendance improves in 12 weeks.
The government said it was disappointed that "a stubborn minority" of truants were determined to jeopardise their education.
'No easy solutions'
The leader of the National Union of Teachers, Steve Sinnott, described the figures as "extremely disappointing" and said the government "must keep its nerve in tackling these problems. There are no easy solutions to truanting".
This year's figures show that an estimated 55,000 pupils were missing classes every day during the school year - an annual increase of about 4,500.
In response to the truancy figures, the government promised a tougher approach to families of persistent truants - 8,000 pupils in 146 secondary schools - who account for a disproportionately large amount of truancy.
Parents will be given 12 weeks to improve their children's attendance or face the threat of court action, which could lead to fines up to £2,500 or three months in prison.
This 12-week fast-track prosecution was announced in autumn 2002, but this increasingly tough approach, which has seen parents of truants imprisoned, has still not appeared to have tackled the deep-rooted problem.
In response to this year's figures, the School Standards Minister Jacqui Smith said that schools were "treating absenteeism more rigorously, challenging questionable reasons for absence and cracking down on unnecessary time out of school".
There will be a dedicated truancy officer to persistent truants to improve their attendance - as the government pursues the current truancy target to reduce the rate by 8% by 2008, compared to the figures for 2003.
But the NUT's Mr Sinnott has warned against the difficulties in persuading some parents of truants.
"Sadly there is a small group of parents who do not respect education and they come not just from deprived circumstances but from among the better off as well. This attitude seriously damages children's future prospects and leaves them vulnerable to the temptations and dangers of the streets," he said.
Shadow Education Secretary David Cameron said: "These figures are dreadful. The government has spent nearly £1 billion on tackling truancy and yet it is getting worse."
The attendance statistics show that the overall rates of unauthorised absence in all schools were also up - to 0.79% - the highest rate since 1994.
The figures are based on the percentage of half-days missed, the official way of measuring absences, and are provisional for 2004/5.
Rates of absence in all schools, both authorised and unauthorised, has decreased slightly to 6.45%.
The government says its efforts to discourage parents from allowing children to take term-time holidays are paying off. But truancy rates in state primary schools are up slightly, to 0.43%.
Out of 3,027,550 pupils registered in secondary schools, a total of 793,628 or 26.2% were absent without permission at some point - on average for seven days.
Unauthorised absence in city academies fell from the previous year's figure of 3.04%, but remained much higher than the national average at 2.84%.
A National Audit Office report in February showed that despite initiatives costing £885m, the truancy rate had not fallen since the government took office eight years ago.
A target set in 1998 to reduce truancy by a third by 2002 was missed.
Last year's figures also showed that truancy in secondary schools was worsening.
The annual truancy figures do not include the whole academic year - in England, unlike in Scotland, schools are required to report pupils' attendance only from September to the end of May.
What is your reaction to these latest truancy figures?
More kids are missing more time off school than before, yet more kids are passing their A-level, and GCSE exams, who needs more proof that exams are getting easier. Maybe if the children were more stimulated and challenged by school, they would not see it as possible to miss school and still pass their exams, like they do presently.
Stephen Brogarth, Radlett, Herts
Pupils attendance should be compared with adults' attendance at work, and the attendance at schools in similar areas should be compared with each other. This would show that pupils' attendance compares quite well with adults and that high morale, in schools as in factories or offices, leads to high attendance rates.
John Mann, London
I have a friend who used to get her child to school every morning, but he constantly slipped out of school during the morning, and was not present at afternoon registration. How can that be the fault of the parent? Surely the school must bear some responsibility in keeping a child in school, and not making it so easy for children to slip out?
M H, Brighton UK
The government has gone mad with statistics. If it spent less time, money and effort on producing statistics then they could put more into that in which they are making statistics about, and produce more results. There is often a result behind truanting and this reason must be established and solved before a student will stop truanting, and feel happy returning to school.
Alex Smith, Rochester, Kent, England
I think the government is going to struggle getting pupils into schools if they don't want to be there, but they are right to start looking at home. They mustn't forget though that a lot of it is because of bullying. There were times when I missed school because I was scared to go. Look at that within it and you might start getting somewhere.
Wendy, Birmingham, UK
It is simple - kids rule - as parents and teachers we are powerless to do anything, and they can do as they please and do so. All punishing the parents does is reinforce that fact. Make them responsible for their actions.
The whole issue is far too politicised. Children are the responsibility of their parents, not the politicians. New Labour would do well to remember that they are accountable to these parents, not the other way around.
Michael, York, UK
It is worrying that so many have to play truant to look good for their friends and peers. However there are a few people that are scared to go into school because of bullying. The government needs to focus on this issue because it is mainly the bullies that play truant, and then terrorise other children, who are then scared to go to school.
Adam Clare, Chelmsford, Essex
Have any studies been done to find the reasons why truancy levels are so high? Are there medical problems, financial difficulties, or increasing crime in certain areas? What is the reason behind the numbers? Statistics can only tell us so much.
Wil C Fry, Seminole, Oklahoma, USA