Truancy figures released today sparked a fresh attack on parents who take their children on holiday during term time.

Government figures show holidays were the biggest of absence from school last year after illness.

More than 5.4 million school days were lost nationally due to holidays during the autumn 2006 and spring 2007 terms.

Nearly 19 per cent of absence during the 2006 autumn term was due to winter holidays, the vast majority (17.3 per cent) condoned by the school.

The figure was lower for the spring 2007 term which covers the Easter period, but still high at 11.2 per cent. No statistics were available for the summer term.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said the absence rate meant one in ten of all days missed during the two terms was due to family vacations.

Children’s Minister Kevin Brennan said: "Regular attendance at school is so important for achieving good grades and parents must recognise that even a couple of days 'unofficial holiday’ can have a negative impact on their child’s progress.

"While it’s fair that heads should have the discretion to allow parents up to a fortnight for holidays in exceptional circumstances, local authorities should not tolerate instances where parents wilfully take their child out of school without authorisation."

Mr Brennan said travel companies, which introduce massive price hikes during vacation periods, also had a role to play in tackling truancy.

But he added: "While I sympathise with the financial pressure on parents when planning holidays, no cut price deal is worth harming a child’s education for and we need parents to work with schools, not against them, to make sure their children are in school every day."

More than 50 million days in total were missed at maintained primary and secondary schools due to absence during the autumn and spring terms of the last academic year.

Of these, more than 7 million were skipped without school permission, with secondary pupils being the worst offenders.

In the West Midlands, an equivalent of 5.6 million school days were missed by pupils over the two terms of which 796,280 were unauthorised.

No regional breakdown was available for pupils taking holidays during term time, but Birmingham City Council urged parents against the trend.

"It is our policy to reduce the amount of holidays being taken in term time by families with school age pupils," said a spokesman.

"We ensure parents are aware of the long-term negative impact this will have on the education of their children and it is also an opportunity to emphasise the importance of good attendance."

During the 2005/06 academic year, the authority issued 260 fines to parents of persistent truants, of which 191 ended up in court.

Figures show the Government’s flagship privately-sponsored academies had the worst truancy rates. The schools - seven of which are to be created in Birmingham - saw a rise in truancy in spring 2007 from 2.62 per cent previously to 3.04 per cent.

That compared to a smaller rise across other state secondaries from 1.49 per cent to 1.61 per cent.

The Government stressed it was important to realise academies were located in the most disadvantaged areas of the country and most had replaced failing schools.

It also blamed a small "hardcore" of just over two per cent of truants that accounted for more than half of all unauthorised absence.

However, Conservative schools spokesman Nick Gibb said: "We need a genuine focus on improving behaviour in our schools - zero tolerance of disruption. We need to give heads the power to exclude pupils without their decisions being second guessed by local authorities."

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws added: "These dreadful figures show that the Government is missing its truancy targets in spite of pouring hundred of millions of pounds into top-down initiatives."