MORE than 1,600 pupils across Portsmouth are missing the equivalent of a month’s lessons or more in a year, according to new statistics released by the Department for Education.
The scale of pupil absence and truancy in the city has consistently eclipsed national averages – but now the government has changed the rules and wants schools to act fast.
Children who miss 15 per cent or more of school time are now classed as persistent absentees (PAs). The previous threshold was 20 per cent.
Nick Gibb, schools minister, said the levels of absenteeism were ‘unacceptable’ and urged schools to crack down on the problem immediately.
Figures from the autumn 2010 and spring 2011 terms show almost 7.6 per cent of Portsmouth’s pupils were PAs, compared with 7.2 per cent across England and 5.8 per cent in Hampshire.
The numbers are particularly alarming because only a third of pupils who miss between 10 and 20 per cent of school end up achieving five A* to C GCSEs with English and maths.
Adam Dare, head of King Richard School in Paulsgrove, said he would like to see the government taking stronger action against parents who take their children on cheap holidays during term time.
His school boasted a record five per cent improvement in attendance rates last year, from 88 to 93 per cent, after tackling parents’ attitudes towards sick leave and unauthorised holidays.
He said the most effective strategy was asking families for medical proof after a child accumulated five days in sick leave – or face being fined.
Mr Dare said: ‘The level of absenteeism across schools is unacceptable. One day missed is one day too many.
‘The government could really help by clamping down on travel companies who give parents incentives to take their children off school and also drilling the message to families that education is important.’
Mike Smith, chairman of Portsmouth secondary schools, applauded the news that the city was slowly narrowing the gap with national averages.
The percentage of children in the city who miss 20 per cent of a school year has dropped by one per cent compared with the same figures from 2009/10.
And the new statistics show 1.64 per cent of school sessions were missed due to unauthorised absence – down from 1.95 per cent a year ago. This figure compares with one per cent nationally and 0.75 per cent in Hampshire.
Mr Smith said: ‘We’re still behind but we are catching up. In my experience the main factor in cutting truancy is making schools good and happy places children want to attend.’
Simon Cattermole, chairman of Portsmouth’s primary school heads, added: ‘The answer to tackling absenteeism is educating the parents that school is really important.
‘There are still too many children missing out on school which will have a direct impact on their attainment and future prospects.’