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Optical allusions to the presence of truants

Gerald Haigh investigates the use of computerised registration as part of a co-ordinated approach to improving attendance in two cities. Every school should have its pupil attendance data stored on the office computer. Once it is there, no one will ever again have to add up figures and make them balance, and the production of summaries for parents, school management, the local authority or the Department for Education, once a series of major secretarial tasks, can be done painlessly with a few keystrokes.

The only real question is how to get the data into the machine from the point at which it is recorded. There are various methods at work in schools and colleges, and each has its enthusiastic supporters. In some places, pupils use either electronic or bar-coded swipe cards. An even more high-tech solution is to give the form tutor a hand-held computer which will exchange registration data with the office machine by radio link (Bromcom's RadioEars does this).

Set against such wizardry, the method that uses specially-printed paper registers marked in class and read into the office computer by optical mark reader seems relatively primitive. It is, however, the route chosen by a number of schools and authorities, not least because it has been available for some years now as a relatively cheap add-on, using a DRS optical mark reader, to the familiar SIMS administration system that already sits on the computers of most UK schools.

Both Leeds and Birmingham are SIMS authorities. Each has been working for some time on a gradual programme to introduce computerised registration into its schools. And, importantly, each is doing it not in isolation but as one strand in a co-ordinated approach to the whole challenge of monitoring and improving attendance in city schools.

Birmingham, for example, runs school conferences on attendance management at least once a year, and a number of inter-agency projects provide particular support for almost 50 schools. There is also a City Centre Project based permanently in the Bull Ring, ready to work with children who are in the shopping centre when they should be in school.

The city also provides a ring-bound resource pack for schools on developing attendance policies. The approach used by the Leeds Attendance Project is remarkably similar the emphasis is on helping schools to develop attendance policies and to run in-service training for classroom teachers on the management of pupil behaviour.

Neither in Leeds nor in Birmingham was it ever believed that attendance could be improved, or truancy cured, by the application of technology. In both authorities, though, it was seen as being necessary to tidy up the routines of registration and to make sure that attendance figures were reliable and easily handled.

Very high-tech systems, although they claimed long-term savings, were ruled out by their initial cost. In fact, given that almost all the schools in both authorities had SIMS, and that secondaries already had DRS optical mark readers provided in the past for national curriculum assessment, the outcome was probably never in doubt. As Mike Briscoe explained, "We had to have something that would be available to all our schools." Given this, there was never really any alternative to SIMSDRS.

What this system means in practice is that the form tutor or class teacher still marks the register. He or she does this, however, on a specially-printed A4 sheet that can be read by the optical mark reader. The sheets are taken down to the office where one of the clerical staff feeds them through the OMR. This sounds straightforward, but there are a number of implications for both teaching and clerical staff which together mean, as Jo Walton of the Leeds Attendance Project explains, "that the system's introduction has to be properly monitored".

For one thing, the teacher has to mark the OMR sheet properly and accurately and send it down to the office on time, every time. Then, in the office itself, there have to be clear guidelines about who is going to operate the OMR and, more importantly, who is going to handle the computer data, updating it (perhaps in response to explanatory calls from parents) and producing reports for management and welfare officers. According to Jo Walton, "There's half an hour or more extra work for the office each day."

The biggest challenge during the introduction of computerised registration is to keep the teaching staff on board. Anyone who has contact with schools knows (although authority teams are usually diplomatic) that manual paper registers were never entirely reliable. There have always been teachers who would mark registers inaccurately, or late, and fail to follow up explanations for absence.

In schools with traditional registers many such problems grumble on, either never coming to light or being constantly put right by long-suffering clerical staff. As soon as the computer enters the frame, however, the inefficiencies become very visible. The software, for example, relentlessly throws up unexplained absences time and again until somebody does something about them. And unmarked or badly marked registers cause gaps which are visible to everyone. Piloting teachers and office staff through the consequent frustrations is a challenge that school management teams handle with differing levels of success, and there has been at least one case of a school withdrawing from computerised registration on the grounds that it was "making the attendance figures worse".

Mike Brianager of Birmingham's information systems and services team, explains it thus: "The system is unforgiving, but it supports you if you are doing the job properly."

The key to success, used in both Leeds and Birmingham, is to introduce computerised registration school by school or area by area, providing training and support at each stage. In 1993-94, Birmingham provided half a day's support, but quickly found that this was not enough, and schools now have a full day of training for the teacher in charge of attendance and the office manager. "We've also provided sessions for staff as a whole where schools have requested it, after-school sessions in awareness raising and promoting the product to them," explains Andy Jackson of the Birmingham team. "We also have our dedicated helpline."

In Leeds, too, the emphasis is on the teacher-office partnership. "We train the key staff," explained Jo Walton, "Including the office staff. We want them to define what the procedures are now and what they need to be under the new system. We also do two training sessions with the whole-school staff, explaining what the system has to offer in terms of reports to parents and the possibility of rewards and incentives. We then make them take a register and code up an absence report."

This latter exercise, it seems, often shows up the school's need to look carefully at policies. "Different groups of people in the same staffroom may well have different interpretations. We just draw attention to the issue and leave it to the school to sort out."

Then, when the system is installed, someone from the Attendance Project is in school on the first day and again on the first Friday when the week's summary reports are being prepared. After that there is telephone support, with visits as necessary.

Leeds and Birmingham have made roughly the same amount of progress over the past three years or so. The target in Birmingham is to have computerised registration in 85 per cent of schools by the start of the autumn term. In Leeds, 37 of the authority's 45 secondary schools, and eight primaries, are on board already and during this coming school year a further 23 schools, including 21 primaries will be brought into the system. In neither case is there any compulsion the days have gone, in any case, when schools could be leaned on to fall in with authority policy.

Computerised registration, says Mike Brias, has to sell itself on its merits, "and clearly schools wouldn't be taking it on if there weren't benefits for them."

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