THE Government's drive to cut the number of children missing school lay in tatters last night as figures showed truancy rates at record levels.

About 55,000 pupils a day skipped classes in England during the 2004-2005 school year, 4,500 more than the previous year.

Ministers immediately announced measures to tackle an estimated hardcore of 8,000 serial truants, threatening their parents with prison or hefty fines.

But opposition MPs said the Government had already wasted nearly £1bn on anti-truancy measures that had failed.

The figures released by the Department for Education showed that the rate of unauthorised absence, which is measured by the percentage of half-day sessions missed, rose by 0.07 per cent to 0.79 per cent.

It now stands at the highest level since 1994, when the figures were first compiled.

Some local education authorities (LEA) in the North-East and North Yorkshire had unauthorised absence rates higher than the national average.

Darlington performed the worst of any LEA in the region with a rate of 1.02 per cent.

Others higher than the national rate were Middlesbrough (0.89) and Redcar and Cleveland (0.84).

Truancy in Tony Blair's flagship city academies was also more than twice as high as for other secondary schools, the figures showed.

Schools Minister Jacqui Smith said one in five of all cases of truancy were down to serial truants in 146 secondary schools.

She said schools had to identify their most persistent truants and tackle their parents, who will be given 12 weeks to improve their children's attendance or face automatic prosecution.

They could be punished with fines of up to £2,500 or three months in jail.

Shadow Education Secretary David Cameron ridiculed the measures, saying: "The Government has spent nearly £1bn on tackling truancy, and yet it is getting worse.

"The Government's proposals to 'fast track' parents of serial truants have been announced before and have clearly not been very effective."

A spokeswoman for Darlington Borough Council said its truancy figures had improved as a result of an attendance strategy, which stresses the importance of school to youngsters and parents.

A spokesman for Middlesbrough Council said overall attendance in its schools was up.

He said: "In the past year, we undertook 68 truancy trawls with police and education social workers and prosecuted 27 parents for allowing their children to truant.

"We take a very firm line on all kind of absences from school."

Two years ago, the Government launched a drive to improve attendance in schools and also prompted a move to fast track the prosecution of parents of persistent truants.

But earlier this year it was revealed that many education authorities in the region were failing to use powers they had been given, with many parents escaping fines and prosecutions.

Meanwhile, a report out this month by charity Action on Rights for Children said "sweeps" and "trawls" carried out by LEAs and police in an attempt to catch truants were a "waste of time and money".

The report found that for every four hours of police time, eight children were stopped, but only three were actually truanting.