I've served my time as a truant catcher. In the long hot summer of 1976 my duties as a house head took me to the banks of the River Sowe in Coventry.
There, I flushed out groups of our youths from the undergrowth and tried to separate them from the pupils of the other nearby secondary schools.
That sort of thing's understandable enough. What I could never fully fathom was the boy who would shiver all through a rainy winter's day, alone in a dark shed on a deserted allotment, rather than be with his friends in a warm and popular school. I can see him now, looking anxiously at me from the gloom like an escaped POW.
Initiatives such as learning mentors and Best (Behaviour and education support teams) signal that schools do attend to individual needs. They also pursue broad-brush policies that have a general effect. In the end, these boil down to sticks and carrots: you either entice pupils to come and stay, or make life difficult if they don't.
Attendance is inextricably linked to so much else: quality of lessons, behaviour, social and cultural pressures. As Sue Bainbridge, in charge of attendance at the Key Stage Three Strategy, says: "Schools tend to look at things like lesson structures, starters and plenaries. If the lesson finishes on a high note, the final memory encourages the child to come in next time."
JDartmouth high is a school that feels comfortable. Students are easy with each other, smiling, ready for a joke with their teachers, and everywhere you go, in classrooms workshops and labs, they're working. Even in the LINC (Learning and Inclusion) Centre, a rescue zone for some pupils, the atmosphere is welcoming. I spoke to a girl on an anger-management programme. "I used to be angry 247," she says with a lovely smile that seems to say that the real person is starting to emerge.
Dartmouth, in Sandwell, Birmingham, is improving attendance as part of a general upward trend. The numbers tell the story: zero exclusions (38 in the first term last year); students deemed at risk of disaffection down from 90 to under 70; on call incidents (senior staff called to a classroom) reduced from 35 in September to 21 in December. KS3 test results and GCSE grades are increasing year by year. Attendance is up from 90.3 per cent last year to 91.2 per cent now, and moving towards the school's target of 92 per cent.
The whole-school initiative ranges all the way from training staff in lesson structure*, through the LINC Centre, to the frequent visible presence of the senior management team around the building.
The school calls every unexplained absentee's home on day one, and makes a huge fuss of good attenders. Noticeboards display targets, group by group, and there's an escalating reward system that builds up through points and vouchers.
Heads making improvements give the impression that it's the art of the possible, and Caroline Badyal at Dartmouth is no exception. "We haven't moved the goalposts," she says. "We've tried to put in clarity, structure, consistency."
Steely resolve is called for when it comes to improving behaviour: a child who turns up in anything other than black shoes has to spend the day in a pair of old fashioned black plimsolls; if a pupil's mobile phone rings in class, it immediately gets locked in the safe until an adult comes for it.
"It's having the courage to do it," says Mrs Badyal. "Never giving up - believing that things can change. I'm an optimist. I keep a smile on my face."
A hundred miles or so up the M6, there's another optimist. Bernard Phillips is head of the Breeze Hill, a 760-pupil school serving a largely Muslim community in Oldham. He too knows that attendance is part of a bigger story. "Attendance has hugely improved, and so has attainment," he says.
"They are linked."
He has assembled a team of teachers, mentors and support staff dedicated to "getting them in and working well".
"We're a complex school," he says. "Of 110 staff, only 57 are teachers. We have a system of key workers so that we don't have five different people running a particular child's case."
All the guns are firing at Breeze Hill: attention to lesson structure, a special base for Year 7 to help transition, close partnership with primaries, an assistant head leading a behaviour and inclusion team, a resident education welfare officer, senior staff on call for classroom incidents, attendance league tables. (The top attendance reward recently was a stretch limo trip to McDonald's.) The results are plain to see: top-grade GCSEs up from 20 per cent in 2001 to 33 per cent last year. Overall attendance up from 85.6 per cent to 89 per cent over the same period; 90 per cent is within reach this year.
"I don't want anyone to think this is the finished product," says Mr Phillips. "But the norm here is to be part of a team that's dedicated to raising achievement."
Oldham has a responsive education welfare service. Each secondary has its own attendance officer on site, and primary schools are shared between five officers. Additionally there's a team of attendance advisers, whose relationship to schools is roughly akin to that of curriculum advisers.
Occasionally, says Roger Thompson, the service's manager, there'll be an attendance blitz on a school.
"The whole of the service will go and work in that school and every child not in will get a visit," he says.
Again, the figures tell the story. Attendance across the borough has risen over consecutive years at a faster rate than the national average. the borough's overall figure last school year was 94.4 percent.
Time and skill is winning hearts and minds in this richly multi-cultural setting. Although prosecution is available - and used - it's significant that Oldham calls the process not Fast Track to Prosecution, but Fast Track to Attendance.
As Roger Thompson puts it: "We need to distinguish between parents unwilling to work with us and parents who are unable to. If they're unable, then we need to work out how we can help and support. " *The KS3 Strategy's Pedagogy and Practice offers guidance in lesson design with advice on plenaries and starters. See www.standards.dfes.gov.ukkeystage3respubsec_pptl0