Committee of Public Accounts

Press No. 18 of Session 2005-06, dated 19 January 2006


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"The Department for Education and Skills looks to be losing ground in its battle against truancy. The latest figures on unauthorised absence show that, having remained at the same level for many years, the level of truancy has suddenly increased - to over 0.8% of school days. This is in the face of massive expenditure, totalling £885 million over seven years, by the Department on initiatives aimed, at least partly, on reducing absence from school by pupils. This is alarming news. I do acknowledge, however, the progress made in reducing the level of total absence.

"Children who miss school, with or without their parents' knowledge, are damaging themselves. They are losing out massively on the education which they so sorely need to equip themselves for life. And children from deprived backgrounds are suffering a double disadvantage.

"There is no simple solution to this problem. What it requires is concerted action on many fronts. The Department and Ofsted must encourage schools to apply seriously and consistently the key practices identified in the Committee's Report.

"It is absolutely essential to build in a school a strong culture of regular attendance - particularly where the parents themselves have a poor attitude towards education. Good head teachers have shown this can be done. The crucial importance of ethos and parental support is demonstrated by faith schools which are more likely to have better than average attendance."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 18th Report of this Session, which examined progress made in reducing absence, on identifying and tackling absence where it occurs, and on persuading parents and pupils of the importance of attending school.

Regular absence from school is damaging, making a young person much more likely to leave school with few or no qualifications and potentially vulnerable to involvement in crime and anti-social behaviour. Parents are responsible under the Education Act 1996 for ensuring that their child of compulsory school age receives a full-time education. The Department for Education and Skills (the Department), local authorities and schools share responsibility for managing and improving school attendance in England.

The Department has had two targets to reduce unauthorised absence in schools and has missed both targets. Unauthorised absence in maintained schools remained static for years, before increasing in 2004-05. The Department is disappointed not to have made progress, but has made more headway in reducing total absence, with absence in maintained schools declining by just over one percentage point in the ten years to 2004-05.

Between 1997-98 and 2003-04, the Department spent £885 million on initiatives to reduce absence and improve behaviour. It is not possible to identify how much was spent on reducing total absence or unauthorised absence, but expenditure that has been highly targeted on a relatively small number of schools has had some success in improving attendance. The initiatives have also helped to reduce the number of pupils permanently excluded from school. Information on causes of absence would help to strengthen assessments of impact and targeting of initiatives.

Using electronic registration systems, schools can record and monitor attendance and follow up individual cases of absence efficiently. The Department has provided specific funding for schools to assist the introduction of electronic systems, but no longer does so as it expects schools to use their devolved budgets for this purpose. The Department will evaluate the different types of system and encourage schools to invest in them.

Each year, local authorities prosecute around 7,500 parents whose children do not attend school, usually resulting in conviction and a fine. Prosecution can be effective but is not the right approach in all cases of persistent absence. Some local authorities have successfully used penalty notices as an alternative to prosecution. Pupils returning to school after a long period of absence can find it difficult to settle in. More needs to be done to reintegrate these pupils and, where relevant, to break the cycle of truancy.

It is important that head teachers create a strong ethos in their school that reinforces the importance of attendance and learning, but not all are doing so. It is also important that any problems with children's or parents' attitudes to education are picked up early before a pattern of absence is established. Secondary school pupils are at particular risk of absence where they find academic subjects unattractive or not relevant to them. A varied, alternative curriculum can engage these pupils and provide them with skills that they will need at work. The Department is looking at different ways of engaging teenagers' interest.

Parents are expected to restrict their family holidays to the school holidays, but term-time holidays account for around 15% of absence. Head teachers have discretion on whether to authorise holidays and some take a firm line on absence, while others are uncertain about the circumstances in which they should give authorisation. The Department and some local authorities are trying to tackle the problem through discussions with the travel industry and the introduction of a six-term year.

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