Boy's death sparks call for text alerts

A text-messaging system to warn parents their children are absent from school could be set up in the wake of the murder of 11-year-old Rory Blackhall.

West Lothian wants a new absence monitoring policy following the death of Rory, a P7 pupil at Meldrum primary in Livingston.

Headteachers and school boards are being consulted on the new policy, which would use Groupcall - an automated messaging service to phones of parents - by 10.30am on the first morning of unexplained absence.

Parents are being warned that, when no explanation for a child's absence is given, social services and police may become involved.

The proposed changes will be discussed at the council's education committee in February.

The review of absence monitoring procedures was instituted by the authority after Rory died in August last year. His mother had dropped him off near the school but he was abducted and murdered. Police believe his killer was Simon Harris, who later committed suicide.

Rory's absence from school was only discovered when his grandfather arrived to collect him at the end of the school day. At that time, the school did not operate a policy of first-day contact. Subsequent investigations suggested that Rory was killed very shortly after being abducted, and his death would therefore not have been prevented even if the new procedures were in place.

The tragedy sparked a national consultation by the Scottish Executive into absence monitoring. A survey by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities into unexplained absence showed a mixed picture. Of the 18 councils which responded, a third had a policy of first-day contact; a third did not have such a policy; and a third delegated the matter to schools.

The Executive's review is not expected to be revealed for a few months but, as the initiating authority, West Lothian's response will be scrutinised very carefully by other councils.

Under its proposals, if contact cannot be established with a parent by 10.30am to explain an absence, it is suggested that the headteacher should undertake a risk assessment.

If the child is known to be at risk or where truancy is suspected, social services will be told and asked to contact a parent or carer via the appropriate social worker or education welfare officer.

If the child is not deemed to be at risk or vulnerable, the school will continue to attempt to contact the parent or carer. If no contact can be made by school closing time, social services will be informed of the absence and responsibility passed to that department. It may have to contact the police.

West Lothian also proposes formal playground supervision at each primary school for 20 minutes before the school day starts. The council is understood to have taken legal advice on best practice. But, during the consultation, questions are being raised about the legal position should, for instance, a pupil arrive in a supervised playground 20 minutes before the start of school but then leave the playground alone.

Does the playground supervisor have a legal duty to follow the pupil to ensure he or she returns?

West Lothian advocates a partnership approach between parents and schools in the revised policy, with parents asked to ensure that their children are not waiting on or outside school premises for more than 20 minutes before school begins. Parents are held responsible for the safety of their children if they are left waiting for longer than 20 minutes.

This echoes an appeal by East Renfrewshire to parents not to drop off their children at school too early, as part of its effort to improve absence monitoring.

Judith Gillespie, Scottish Parent Teacher Council development manager, said the proposals were "all good stuff", but added: "Let no one think this system will offer total guarantees - it is not possible to achieve a system that is a 100 per cent guarantee."


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