Helen Liddell in the Press

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Liddell attacks parents for letting children skip school

Minister speaks out weeks after Blair's holiday trip

By TOM LITTLE  Education Correspondent

PARENTS who let their children miss school have been criticised by Helen Liddell, the Scottish education minister, weeks after Tony Blair took his family on holiday during term time.

Mrs Liddell said it was unacceptable to keep pupils away from lessons for "trivial reasons" when she unveiled the latest truancy figures for every school in Scotland.

The statistics showed that last year secondary pupils were off school without permission for the equivalent of two and a half days a year, on average. At one Edinburgh school the annual rate of absence rose to 16 days.

Across Scotland the level of unauthorised absence was the same as in, 1996-97, despite a Government action plan which included the threat of legal action against parents of the worst truants.

Mrs Liddell insisted there was no excuse for schools and local authorities to tolerate truancy as they had been issued with advice on countering it, and millions of pounds of money was available to tackle the problem.

She said: "One of the most pressing problems is absence that is condoned by parents or guardians.

"Obviously sometimes there are very good reasons for parents to keep their children off school. However, I believe that there is considerable scope for working with parents to reduce absence rates. In particular, I would encourage parents to consider very carefully the educational consequences of taking their children out of school for trivial reasons."

Mrs Liddell did not say if a family trip to the Seychelles which went on beyond the start of a school term qualified as a "trivial reason".

Mr Blair was condemned for taking his children, Euan, Nicky and Kathryn, on such a trip at Christmas. Two other cabinet ministers, Ann Taylor and Jack Straw, were criticised at the same time for ignoring the school timetable.

Judith Gillespie, the Scottish Parent Teachers Council policy officer, said she believed the number of parentally-approved absences was increasing.

She said: "Parents seem to have a blind spot when it comes to taking children on holiday. They somehow don't see it in the same way as truancy, but if a pupil is coming and going all the time it doesn't matter what the reason, it makes teaching them extremely difficult."

The Scottish Office guidelines say a parent can take a child on holiday if the pupil's attendance record is satisfactory, but that such absence will not be permitted if the child has already been off school a great deal.

Children are also be excused if they go on extended overseas visits to relatives, and parents can keep their children away from lessons if there has been a family bereavement, for religious reasons or for a wedding of immediate family.

The time pupils take off school is recorded in half-days as registration takes place each morning and afternoon. The average number of authorised absences per secondary pupil was 38 during 1997-98, a slight improvement on the year before. The number of unauthorised absences was static at five.

The record was worst among the seven secondaries in the Stirling area, where pupils were absent without permission on average 14 times. Schools in the Falkirk area also fared badly with 10 absences, a figure matched in Fife.

The school with the worst attendance record was Castlebrae High, in Edinburgh, where pupils were off without permission 32 times, and throughout the city the average attendance was four times worse than the previous year.

The situation was better among the nation's primary schools, where the average was 20 half-days authorised absences and only a single half-day unauthorised per pupil.

Ross Martin, the education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said councils were involved in a number of innovative approaches to try to work with parents and children to cut truancy.

These included giving pagers to parents of the worst offenders so they can be contacted if a child is absent, and even compensating older pupils who give up part-time jobs to concentrate on their school work.

Mr Martin said: "Everything that is going on in education at the moment has got to be seen as part of the drive to improve academic attainment, and good attendance by pupils is a critical part of that."

The report issued yesterday by Mrs Liddell, Attendance and Absence in Scottish Schools, also showed an increase in the number of permanent exclusions last year, to 92 in secondaries and 23 in primaries compared to 91 and 16 the year before. The number of temporary exclusions fell.