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Unauthorised Absences

Volume 469: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

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

The Minister will understand that this is a very serious and worrying problem in many parts of the country. Will he tell us how many parents have been fined or sent to jail for persistently not ensuring that their children attend school?

I do not have that figure to hand, but there have been prosecutions, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There is also the provision to have parental contracts and, where necessary, parental orders as well, on attendance at school. The recent figures show that those are being used quite widely by local authorities.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of visiting Pelton Roseberry sports college in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the head and staff there, who are taking a zero-tolerance approach to unauthorised absences? Their main weapon is to have tailor-made courses for individual students and exciting vocational training, which is leading to a lot more kids staying in school and not dropping out of education.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on undertaking that visit. By having a stronger policy on unauthorised absence, the principal or head teacher of that establishment may well find that the figures for unauthorised absence go up, because it is not being tolerated. Any Member would congratulate the head teacher on taking that stance. That is why the Opposition should congratulate the Government on doing exactly the same thing, and bearing down on overall absence.

Should a boy who decides to be absent from the school photograph but then turns up four hours later be punished for the unauthorised absence, or rewarded for thinking better of it?

The main problem is that the Opposition deliberately try to use the figures for unauthorised absence as a measure of truancy. I do not think that they actually believe that the two things are the same, but if they do, I wish that they would say so explicitly and publicly, so that they could be subject to the ridicule of every head teacher in the land.

One of the most widely experienced phenomena in primary schools, in particular, is parentally condoned absence at certain times of year. How do the Government intend to respond to that growing problem?

My hon. Friend is correct. It is a worrying fact that many children who are away from school and totting up unauthorised absences are with their parents, or absent with their parents’ permission. It is right for head teachers to refuse to grant permission for unauthorised absence in those circumstances. That is why the Department has decided to bear down on the figures for persistent absence and overall absence. I previously told the House that 75,000 more children were in school each day than in 1997, but I am afraid that that was slightly incorrect: the correct figure is 76,000.

We welcome the fact that resources are being put into ensuring that children take up the educational opportunities available to them. However, as persistent absences continue, despite the additional resources and sanctions available to schools and education authorities to deal with them, how does the Minister believe that those who remain absent from school while they are already supposed to be there are going to be enticed into his plans for staying on at school until the age of 18?

We are having some success with persistently absent pupils—in other words, pupils who miss more than half a term of school a year. We have targeted 436 schools in an attempt to reduce persistent absence. In those schools, persistent absence has been reduced by 20 per cent. Overall in secondary schools in England, it has been reduced by 10 per cent. We are having successes. We are also confident that by the time we raise the education leaving age, there will be pathways available to young people, in school or college or via an apprenticeship or other form of training, that will constitute an attractive offer.

Why should anybody believe what the Government say about truancy given that by any measure, including their own, the figures have mushroomed? If they are so convinced that they have done a good job, why did they quietly abandon the truancy targets in the public service agreement targets published in October? Can the Minister explain why the Government’s so-called effective tool of truancy sweeps saw the number of children being stopped plummet from 20,554 to 11,713 between 2002 and 2006, while the number of children playing truant rocketed over the same period?

Of course that is absolute nonsense. The number of children playing truant has not rocketed. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is conflating unauthorised absences and truancy. I could abolish unauthorised absence tomorrow simply by telling head teachers to authorise all absences, and if I did that, he would rightly criticise me. At some stage, he needs to say at the Dispatch Box that he believes that unauthorised absence and truancy are one and the same thing—and if he does that, he will open himself up to ridicule from every head teacher in the country.