HIGH-PROFILE sweeps are under way to ensure shopping centres in the North-East and North Yorkshire become truancy free zones.

A three-week clampdown is taking place that will see both police and educational welfare officers trawling commercial centres and other known truancy hot spots.

It is part of a drive to take the fight against unauthorised school absenteeism to the truants.

Young people confronted will be challenged to provide authorised reasons why they are not in school.

Those unable to come up with plausible responses will be immediately returned to school, or an agreed place of safety.

Where appropriate, they and their parents will be given support to improve their school attendance.

Meanwhile, Darlington Borough Council is to issue £50 fines to parents of pupils who have missed at least ten half-days from school, under a plan expected to be approved by the borough council's cabinet today.

If agreed, the scheme will be introduced across the borough from January next year.

The sixth round of national truancy sweeps was launched by Education Minister Stephen Twigg, yesterday.

He said school attendance was at record levels, with an increase of more than 40,000 pupils attending school each day compared to 1997.

But he added: "A stubborn hard core of two per cent of pupils remain determined to jeopardise their education and their futures through persistent truancy."

In County Durham, police and the education authority have joined forces to target specific areas.

Among them are Consett North, South Moor and the main shopping area of Stanley, which have been designated "truancy free action zones" as part of the effort.

They have been flooded with posters, leaflets and stickers to ensure everyone is aware of the action, with the support of traders.

Councillor Neil Foster, the county council's cabinet member for education, said: "By supporting this initiative, parents and the whole of the community can play a huge part in helping young people make the most of their education, while at the same time, keeping the place safe for everyone."

Figures for the most recent sweep, in March, show that across the North-East, of 1,199 children stopped, 467 were classed as playing truant and 163 of them were accompanied by their parents.

In North Yorkshire and York, of 32 children stopped, ten were deemed to be truants, with only one accompanied by an adult.