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Hang Ups

I only spent a few minutes with Phil Rickards but I saw enough to realise that he is the sort of teacher I failed abysmally to be. He is organised. As his class at Hawthorn High School, in South Wales, tripped out for morning break, he nipped into his storeroom, slipped a couple of medium-sliced into his toaster, and found the marmalade - probably filed under "M".

As the first whiff of crisping Wonderloaf assailed my nostrils, I diagnosed why my years in teaching had been such an uphill struggle - it was all down to blood-sugar levels. I spent my days either exhausted from a lack of glucose or supine after bingeing on Marathons bought with Bunterish abandon at the tuck shop. It's not surprising that my teaching was catastrophically erratic - and nowhere was my inefficiency more cruelly revealed than during the registration periods.

There's so much you have to remember - your red pen, your black pen, what day of the week it is. And then there are the codes that have to be fitted into noughts to account for absences: however carefully I tried, visit to orthodontist, Jewish holiday, music exam were all rendered as the same indecipherable blob. And although I knew which children were present, I invariably managed to get at least one tick in the wrong row. That meant Tipp-Ex - I used so much of the stuff that by the end of the summer term, my register weighed a good half kilo more than anyone else's.

Mr Rickards has no such problems. He doesn't even have a register. Eighteen months ago, at a cost of more than Pounds 30,000, Hawthorn abandoned paper registers in favour of Bromcom's Electronic Attendance Registration System (ears). Each of the 64 teachers is equipped with a snazzy A4 folder that contains a computer, keyboard, LCD screen and a radio transceiver.

Whether it's to register his form, or any of the individual teaching groups he meets during the day, Mr Rickards simply keys in the relevant code and the appropriate class list is transmitted by radio, from the office computer to his ears folder. He then calls out the names in just the same way as teachers have done down the ages. He registers who's present by clicking the tick and nought keys. He can add code letters to indicate authorised absences, and lates; he can even record which pupils have completed their homework diaries, or those who have forgotten their games kits, or any other nugget of information that the school decides is worth storing.

Corrections can be made as easily as on a word processor. When Mr Rickards is certain that every tick is ticketyboo, he only needs to press one button and the data is transmitted to the office computer. It means that the deputy head in charge of attendance can see immediately not only whether a pupil was present at the formal registration period, but also whether he or she is turning up to subsequent lessons.

Of course, once the data is on the hard disc, the computer can go on to perform all manner of number-crunching wonders - it can churn out the statistics demanded by the Department for Education and Employment in minutes. But ears can do far more than register attendance. The folder doubles as an electronic mark book. Teachers can even take it home by first downloading the class lists that they want to update.

In school they can use it to send memos to each other, or to send electronic mail to the outside world via the main computer. The folder has a panic button and an internal bleeper. It seems to be able to do everything that a busy teacher might need - except make the toast. But Bromcom is probably working on that.

Bromcom, 417-421 Bromley Road, Kent, BR1 4JP

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