A normally bubbly girl becomes morose and withdrawn; a boy who is usually well behaved starts playing up in class; another starts skipping lessons. A quiet word with the pupil produces only evasion. A phone call home sheds little light on the problem.
Every teacher knows a pupil whose schoolwork is disrupted by what is happening outside the classroom. Few have the time to get to the root of the matter if initial enquiries prove fruitless. Even those who do persist are sometimes met with suspicion from parents. Trying to untangle a child's personal life can be frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful.
Naomi's 100 per cent attendance came to an end when she lost her voice. But as her absence dragged on, her form tutor began to think there might be more to it. Julia Gedney was asked to intervene.
Julia works in York High School for School-Home Support (SHS), a charity that aims to provide the sometimes missing link between school and home. She found there was indeed more to Naomi's absence.
Naomi was helping to look after her younger sister, Kelsie, then 11, who had multiple sclerosis and needed round-the-clock care. "I knew if I went to school I would have other things on my mind and I could not do anything," says Naomi, now 16. "I knew I would get behind, but I didn't want to leave my mum or Kelsie and I didn't know what to do."
Julia realised it was vital that Naomi remained at home and made sure all her teachers were aware of the situation. She arranged for work to be sent home regularly and brought it back for the teachers to mark. When Naomi returned to school, two weeks after Kelsie's death, Julia was on hand to help ease the transition.
"It is easy to talk to Julia and she made me feel more confident that I could do it," says Naomi. "You can say stuff that you can't say to a teacher, about what you are going through and your feelings. If I am feeling down and I want someone to talk to, I know Julia is always there for me."
Julia was originally taken on at Oaklands, one of York High's two predecessor schools, three years ago, to try and improve attendance. David Ellis, former headteacher at Oaklands and now head at York High, says her role has expanded, as poor attendance is often a symptom of a bigger problem.
In an area where some families have had a poor experience of education, a visit from Julia can seem less confrontational than a teacher turning up on the doorstep.
"Parents almost see Julia as an honest broker. She is not quite establishment, and parents and young people are more willing to open up and talk to her," David says. "They soon realise I'm not there to wave a finger," Julia says.
The school pays for Julia's salary and a package of support and training, although David says the pound;31,000 represents a sound investment. "In a traditional secondary school, the person most likely to have all these skills is the deputy head, and they're being paid a lot more than pound;31,000 a year."
Julia sees her role as something of a troubleshooter. "It might be a pupil with 100 per cent attendance, but the teacher feels there's something going on or they're not quite happy," she says.
Her office is a popular meeting point at breaks and lunchtimes, sometimes for those who just want "a chat and a bit of TLC". She also runs an after-school drop-in on Thursdays, friendship groups, self-esteem groups and Year 7 groups for those struggling with the transition to secondary school. More specialised sessions include behaviour counselling and anger management, sometimes with the help of outside experts.
Danny Hagyard had anger management and self-esteem sessions. The 13-year-old often didn't turn up for lessons and when he did he was disruptive. Karen, his mum, was called into school almost daily.
"The other children used to press Danny's buttons, knowing he would erupt, so it was about teaching him not to react," Julia says.
It's now 10 months since Danny last walked out of school, and Karen says he is noticeably happier, as well as more inclined to do his homework. "Before, he would just ignore it and rip it up, but we haven't had things ripped up for a long time," she says.
Nathan Preston began skipping school soon after he started at York High. All his primary school friends had gone to a different secondary, and the strain made him ill. "The first few days I was panicking and I started getting stomach cramps and had trouble breathing because I'm asthmatic," says Nathan, 11. "Playtimes were hard because I was just walking around and after two weeks I didn't want to come in."
Julia devised a special timetable, with Nathan going to lessons he enjoyed: PE, science, and design and technology, adding a couple of subjects each week. "It's OK now," he says. "I still wish my friends were here, but I've made a few friends."
Not everyone is happy to see Julia. Some may be working with many agencies and see little point in another. Others can never arrange a meeting, although Julia has yet to be refused permission to work with a child.
Nor does every case of low attendance come to her. Pupils with less than 50 per cent attendance are still referred to the local authority's education welfare officers, who can take legal action.
Nikki Hudd, a design teacher, asked Julia to contact one of her pupils whose attendance had fallen to 64 per cent. After missing a few lessons, Laura felt she was too far behind and there was no point coming in at all. A home visit was the start of a campaign to persuade Laura that she could be the first in her family to go on to further education. Now she is at college, and her younger brother never misses school.
"Julia can get closer to families and find out what is going on at home," says Nikki. "That is not your role as a teacher, but every individual pupil that you change makes a difference to the whole school."
David Ellis is in no doubt of the effect Julia has had. During her time at Oaklands, attendance rose about 2 per cent, from just under 90 to 91 per cent. He says that in some cases Julia physically gets children back into school.
But not all the benefits come down to statistics. "I can think of some young people who would not be here at all if Julia had not been working with them," David says. "That is without question."
*Some of the names in this article have been changed
School-Home Support has been working in Grafton Primary in Islington, north London, for the past six years. "We realised the issues often went much deeper than attendance, and we needed somebody who could follow them through and make sure any concerns are picked up," says Nitsa Sergides, headteacher.
Sarah Harris works two-and-a-half days a week at Grafton - with another two-and-a-half days at a nearby primary. She says her role has evolved in response to parents' needs. It is now an area with a large number of immigrant families.
A visit to the home of a Year 6 boy with poor attendance, who always came in with dirty clothes, found he was living in a flat with no bedding and no washing machine. Sarah helped the family with applications to buy furniture, clothes, a washing machine and a cooker.
"Teachers know a lot about the children, but they're committed to a school timetable so they're not always able to follow things up," she says. "We can build up a relationship with the family."
In the six years Sarah has been working at Grafton, attendance has gone from 90.3 per cent to 94.5 per cent. While no one argues that is solely down to her presence, Nitsa believes the pound;12,500 a year the service costs her is a good investment. "These short-term interventions go a long way towards improving children's lives," she says.
MONEY WELL SPENT
School-Home Support (SHS) is working in schools in London, York, the East Riding of Yorkshire, Bradford, North Yorkshire, Darlington and Nottingham. There are SHS staff based in 123 primary schools, 29 secondaries, four early years settings, three special schools and a pupil referral unit. In 2006-07, the charity helped 31,783 children.
SHS has specialists in school attendance; transition; curriculum support in the shape of learning mentors, and working with families. It also has community support workers helping Polish and Turkish communities integrate into school life.
In addition, it operates a welfare fund to help buy school uniforms, household goods and to finance school trips for families in financial hardship.
A report last year by Matrix Evidence, a consulting and evaluation firm, concluded that every pound;1 spent on SHS saved the taxpayer pound;3.35, in the cost of exclusion and tackling truancy. The cost to the whole of society was estimated at pound;21.14 for every pound;1 spent, due to reducing the risk of future offending and loss of income.
Researchers for New Philanthropy Capital, which advises charities, suggested last year that SHS could prevent a quarter of exclusions.