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Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government action to combat truancy since 1997; and if he will make a statement. (114293)

[holding answer 11 January 2007]: The Department focuses on reducing all absences from schools, not just those which are unauthorised. Overall absence rates have been substantially lower than the 1996-97 rate in all but two of the last nine years. In 2005-06, when absence rates were affected by unusually high levels of sickness, absence was still 0.54 per cent. points below the 1996-97 level—equivalent to 37,000 more pupils in school every single day.

We do not have a direct measure of truancy. Unauthorised absence is often used as a proxy for truancy, but it is an imperfect measure because it also includes lateness and some term time holidays. It is also well known that unauthorised absence tends to rise when schools take a tougher line on absence generally, as has happened in recent years, without reflecting any underlying increase in truancy. The latest figures show no increase in unauthorised absence. That is why the Department has moved away from targets focusing narrowly on rates of unauthorised absence.

The vast majority of unauthorised absence is very short term: of the secondary school pupils with unauthorised absence in the autumn and spring terms 2005-06, 55 per cent. missed only one or two days and 75 per cent. missed 5 days or fewer. But we also now know that a small minority of pupils miss significant amounts of their schooling. That is why we are now focusing our efforts on reducing persistent absence, including persistent truancy, in schools where this problem is most acute. This is proving highly effective. Last year, our targeted challenge and support in 198 secondary schools helped to reduce the number of persistent truants in those schools by 27 per cent., to reduce the average rate of absence in those schools by 0.63 per cent. and the average rate of unauthorised absence by 0.89 per cent.

Building on that success, we are now focusing on providing challenge and support to 436 secondary schools with high levels of persistent absence.