One in 12 East Anglian pupils miss class

One in 12 East Anglian youngsters - almost 10,000 - are absent from high school every day and “conniving” parents who help their children bunk off are largely to blame.

One in 12 East Anglian youngsters - almost 10,000 - are absent from high school every day and “conniving” parents who help their children bunk off are largely to blame.

The claim came as shocking new figures revealed for the first time that more than 8,000 “persistent absentees” each miss at least 32 days of school across the region every year.

Education leaders last night slated parents for their part in the problem and said many youngsters were leaving school “functionally illiterate” because they missed so much education.

The figures, which were released by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), show the extent of problems for schools as they try to prepare teenagers for critically important GCSE exams which hold the key to students' futures.

Some of the persistent non-attenders have long-term illnesses, but many get signed off sick by their parents when there is nothing wrong with them - adding to the problems of schoolchildren hanging around in towns and cities with nothing to do.

Bill Gould, headteacher of Hellesdon High School, near Norwich, said: “There is certainly a very real problem with non-attendance. There are some children in our school who didn't attend middle school and never cross the threshold of this school.

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“They have put themselves outside the normal job market because they are functionally innumerate and illiterate. They don't have the basic skills.”

He added: “There's also a level of parental connivance where a child says 'I've got a cold' and the parent says 'don't go to school', or the child says 'it's my birthday' and the parent says 'don't go to school, we'll go shopping instead'.”

Mr Gould said Hellesdon High was using a system to fast-track prosecution for the parents of persistent truants, and added: “In two cases, it has had a big effect. The children are back in school because of the threat.

“The only other thing that's going to change this is if parents start to accept that education is more valuable than they thought it was for them. Until parental attitudes change, all the efforts to improve attendance will fail.”

John Barnes, Norfolk secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “If the children are not in school they will not learn and will not get the grades in their exams.

“Secondary schools have to make sure that those who are frequently missing somehow get grouped together for catch-up sessions. But that can be like trying to nail quicksand.”

He added: “Truancy is just a symptom of an attitude among pupils and very often parents. A lot of the absence you get at secondary school is condoned by parents.”

Absence figures are believed to contribute to the high number of “lost” Norfolk teenagers who leave school with no education, job or training - and often go on to get into trouble with the police or waste their lives.

Ministers hope the new vocational diplomas for 14-19-year-olds, focussing on skills including construction and engineering, will make more students want to be at school.

The diplomas are set to tie in with the announcement that leaving school before the age of 18 will soon become illegal - unless the young person is in an accredited employment training scheme.

The figures released last night show that 3,536 youngsters were missing from Norfolk secondary schools every day in 2005/6 - the equivalent of 8.56pc or one in 12 of all pupils.

For the first time, the DfES also identified the “persistent absentees”, with 3,270 in Norfolk missing at least 32 days each year - which is more than six weeks of schooling, or around a day each week. The figure puts Norfolk 10th highest in the country.

In Suffolk, 3,630 youngsters were absent each day, which is 7.59pc of the total. There were 2,795 persistent non-attenders.

In Cambridgeshire, there were 2,533 children out of school each day - 8.43pc of the total. There were 2,144 labelled “persistent absentees”.

Val Creasy, attendance and exclusions manager at Norfolk County Council, said she was planning to hold a meeting with DfES officials over the figures, which she questioned.

But she said: “I think we have a big job to do in Norfolk to make sure everybody understands it's the parents' responsibility to ensure children attend school.

“There are still some parents who believe it's their right to take children out of school. Some schools are being very creative and working very hard to tackle the issue.”