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Volume 467: debated on Monday 12 November 2007

I did not realise that I was so popular.

Our focus is on reducing all forms of unnecessary absence, and in particular on reducing the number of persistent absentees with very high levels of absence. We both support and challenge local authorities in areas where those problems are concentrated. Our success is demonstrated by record low rates of absence last year, and by the 10 per cent. reduction in the number of persistent absentees.

Given that truancy is at its highest level for 10 years, and given the Government’s scrapping of the target introduced by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1998 to improve school attendance, what hope have we that, when the Government eventually insist on children staying at school until the age of 18, those children will turn up at all?

I should have thought that, as a member of the esteemed club of ex-Government Whips, the right hon. Gentleman would realise that we should be concentrating on persistent absentees rather than the quality of the note provided by the person who is absent. The Government are concentrating on persistent absentees, and as a result there are 75,000 more children at school every day than there were in 1997.

My hon. Friend may recall that when we last had a debate about truancy there were seven Members in the Chamber, of whom there was a photograph in The Times. I might add that I was one of the school creeps who were present at the time.

May I ask whether any studies have been undertaken of truancy in other countries, where truancy rates may be much lower, to identify the drivers of truancy and how we might make a real success of driving it downwards?

Far from giving my hon. Friend an ASBO, I will give him a gold star for being here so often. He is certainly not one of the persistent absentees—unfortunately sometimes, I hasten to add. If he looks at the international comparisons, he will find that this country’s record is improving considerably. The reason is that, instead of concentrating on the meaningless and perverse incentive of looking at unauthorised absences, which simply means that schools can decide whether to authorise an absence, we are looking at overall absence. As a result of that, every day we have 75,000 more pupils in school than there were in 1997. Absence among persistent absentees fell by 10 per cent. last year, and 20 per cent. in the schools that we targeted, and it is down overall from 7.23 per cent. in 1995-96 to 6.44 per cent. last year.

Is the Minister surprised that, given that this is in effect Education questions and the Liberal Democrats are so concerned about education, all their Back-Bench MPs are playing truant at the moment?

My hon. Friend the Minister is right to acknowledge that persistent truancy is a major problem, but there is also the problem of peer pressure on younger people to stay away from school, which leads to drink and drug problems and petty crime. What can we do to ensure that local education authorities across the country have the right funding and do not cut back on truancy and welfare officers? Giving them powers to act is important.

It is very important. Through the national strategies and other schemes, we are concentrating on behaviour, truancy, peer mentoring, bullying and all the things that may impact on truancy. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should emphasise persistent absence because about 2 per cent. of pupils are responsible for over half of those unauthorised absences that we talked about earlier. Therefore, it is important that we focus on them. We have done that through concentrating on 400 schools with the most problematic records, with considerable success: there was a 20 per cent. reduction last year in persistent absentees from those schools.

Ten years ago it was announced that school truancy would be cut by one third, and in fact there are now 1.4 million children playing truant every year. That is almost 500,000 more under this Government. Given that failure, how certain can the Minister be of his proposals to increase the number of 16 to 18-year-olds participating in education by fining them up to £200 when they do not turn up? I am sure he will be aware that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, recently said that he felt that that idea was in “cloud cuckoo land”. Is the Minister expecting to quietly drop that proposal, in the same way as he quietly dropped the failed truancy target?

It is simply not right to say that truancy has gone up in the way that the hon. Lady suggests because she is confusing the statistics for unauthorised absence and truancy. They are not the same thing. She does not have to take my word for that. I refer her to Martin Ward, who is the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He said:

“It is a mistake”—

I hope she is listening to this—

“to refer to unauthorised absence as ‘truancy’ since this figure includes the many holidays taken in term-time, which remains a major problem for schools.”

We could tomorrow, if she really wants us to, say to schools that we want them to reduce the figures for unauthorised absence and they could do that, without having any impact on truancy, simply by becoming stricter on excuses for absence. If she is serious about truancy, she will concentrate on overall absence, not on the figure for unauthorised absence. We will bring in measures to make sure that young people are in employment, education or training up to the age of 18, with training for them all, including modern apprenticeships.