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The electronic register comes of age

When computerised registration came on the scene some seven years ago, it raised problems that were quite separate from those surrounding, say, computerised finance packages. With attendance systems, running the software is not the problem. Attendance data is not tidily collected in the school office but is entered in registers by perhaps dozens of teachers spread around perhaps several buildings. The task facing the designers of systems is that of transferring information from each teacher's desk into the office computer. The real rivalry is between different ways of doing it.

The desire in many schools to deter internal truancy by registering pupils at every lesson adds to the problem. Typically, this involves lots of bits of paper and a great deal of message carrying. As often as not, the information that results is unreliable.

In some schools, pupils are not registered at all in any conventional sense; instead, they use their own swipe cards. A gadget "reads" each card and transmits its details by wire to the central computer. Many more schools use an optical mark reader in the office which detects pencil marks on a specially designed paper register. This is being made made to work very well with the SIMS attendance package in many schools, and is relatively cheap. The obvious disadvantage is that it still involves carrying paper registers about.

The third and most hi-tech option has been Bromcom's RadioEars, now called Bromcom-wNet. The teacher has an A4 plastic folder containing a small computer which is radio-linked to the main computer in the office. The teacher calls up her tutor group register on to the screen of her own computer, marks it by pressing the right buttons, and sends it back. With this system, lesson registration becomes just as manageable and accurate as the main tutor group registration; what you have, in effect, is a "rolling register", updated each lesson as the day goes on. In fact, there is no need for a timetabled registration period at all. Most schools, however, like to retain a morning registration session in tutor groups, for the sake of tutor-pupil contact.

At the time of the launch of RadioEars in 1993, I had two doubts. I had real problems with the thought of a school spending Pounds 20,000 or more on a better way of marking the register, and I also wondered about reliability. Radio linking of digital devices sounds easier than it actually is, and it was certain that school buildings, which vary greatly in construction, size and distance apart, would provide Bromcom with some challenges. There would be all sorts of problems, I believed, if hard-pressed classroom teachers had their familiar and comfortable registers suddenly replaced by a less than reliable electronic alternative.

These worries seemed to be confirmed when, in the autumn term of that first year, I visited Frank F Harrison School in Walsall, where RadioEars had been installed. I found there a tale of disgruntled staff, unreliable radio links, and a deputy head driven to distraction.

That was then. Now, things seem much better. The learning curve has been steep on all sides. The firm's engineers have clearly built up a huge bank of knowledge of what will work in various kinds of buildings. Both hardware and software, too, have been made to respond more reliably and quickly to the demands of school life.

Even Frank F Harrison's people are now enthusiastic. George Hardy, the deputy head, who confessed to being originally "totally disillusioned - I'd bought a thing that wasn't fully developed", now says, "The thing is splendid. I'm really over the moon about it. It's a complete transformation."

There has undoubtedly been increased awareness among customer schools and colleges that this is not a system you can unpack and plug in. Staff need to be nursed along, and convinced of the worth of what they are doing. Management and administrative structures are invariably affected. The system itself will inevitably display teething problems and initial unreliabilities so that, at the very least, it has to be run alongside the old paper system for a short while.

What is really now on Bromcom's side, though, is that the firm is at last adding value by making the system do other things - hence the change of name. From the beginning, it was easy to see that if you gave every teacher in a school a small computer, and linked everything together by radio, then you were opening up endless possibilities. Having been initially slow to appear, these extra functions are beginning to happen. E-mail between teachers is now easy, as is paging and the distribution of general messages. The latest communication function allows the school to give pagers to some parents - the system will then automatically let them know if their children are away from school.

Now, too, there is an electronic grade book by which a teacher can transmit grades from the classroom to the central administration system. This effectively provides "one-shot entry" of grades. You mark a piece of work, enter the grade on your terminal and the software takes care of it; nobody has to copy it again into a book or on to a form. The fact that the system now has a two-way link with the SIMS administration system will be attractive to many schools both in this context and in others.

The radio link also makes it easy to give panic alarms to staff. This is being used at Frank F Harrison, which has a very open site.

At King Edward VII Upper School in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, senior staff had looked at computerised registration for some time before they eventually took the plunge. Peter Woodhead, the deputy head, explains that the school had all the usual problems associated with a large campus made up of a motley collection of buildings. "We wanted to cut down on movement and increase teaching time."

The afternoon was particularly messy. It started with a brief registration period, which meant that students had first to go to their tutor groups and then head off to their lessons. For some time, therefore, the search was on for something to make the job easier - if possible by eliminating the afternoon registration. He also wanted something that would enable teachers easily to register attendance at each lesson.

Peter Woodhead and his colleagues looked at systems with swipe card and optical mark reader but they held back. The problem was that they did not want to spend money on a big system that only did one job, and when they looked at RadioEars, they immediately saw its potential as a device for all kinds of communication.

With the system up and running, the school has now abolished afternoon tutor group registration, gaining 50 minutes a week of teacher time. Lesson-by-lesson registration has become quick and effective, and the teachers are enthusiastically using e-mail. Peter Woodhead is particularly enthused by the way the "grade-book" system gives teachers access to each pupil's academic progress. "We're into tutors monitoring academic progress. With Ears they are able to do that." What this means is that a tutor is able to talk to individuals about marks and grades instead of simply registering the group. And, because teachers can enter a variety of codes into the system, the tutor can seem omniscient about what has gone on perhaps only minutes before: failure to give in homework; a good piece of work; a poor excuse for not doing PE.

The varying experiences of schools show that success with Bromcom, and with any new IT administration system, depends on a few crucial factors. A smooth transition at King Edward VII, for example, came about because of the following: * The school, which has applied for technology college status, has an IT-literate staff.

* Initial introduction was done slowly. Peter Woodhead feels that it takes a year to get the system fully operational in a school.

* In the school office was a secretary who became expert at running the attendance software and generally managing attendance matters.

* Senior staff were determined that Bromcom should make the system work as the school wanted. "It was too slow at first. We just didn't find that acceptable, and the firm solved it." Bromcom's response to problems, by phone, by modem or by visits from engineers, is invariably highly praised by customers.

Bromcom-wNet is undeniably expensive. A system for a 65-teacher secondary school, with attendance recording, the grade book, radio e-mail and paging, would cost more than Pounds 40,000. The firm has ideas for spreading the cost and help with sponsorship, but it is still clear that any school will have to make the system work very hard to earn its keep.

* Bromcom Tel 0181 461 3737

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