Ruffwood School's working environment - Kirkby, on the edge of Liverpool - is challenging to say the least. Sixty-six per cent of its pupils are on free meals, and 76 per cent qualify for a clothing grant. Attainment on entry is well below the national average.
Heads and governors across the country have learned that the key to success against this kind of background is to demonstrate to pupils that they are valued and trusted. Thus, for John Jones, Ruffwood's headteacher, the introduction of cashless catering was more than just a convenience: "It is part of our move from a culture of control to a culture of responsibility."
Over the six years of his headship, John Jones can point to solid results from his policy of valuing and challenging his pupils. The GCSE A-C percentage, though still low by national standards at 18 per cent last year, has risen from 5.8 per cent in 1991.
There were also good practical reasons for addressing the lunchtime arrangements. Early on in his headship, Mr Jones stopped pupils from going off the premises at lunchtime. At the same time the lunch break was shortened from 90 minutes to 50. However, moving some 900 children through the dining halls in such a short time was a continuous problem, and in 1995 the school opted for a cashless meals system. "We wanted to streamline the whole thing, and make a drastic reduction in the queues," says John Jones.
The system was introduced last September. Each pupil who eats school lunch on the premises - and more than two-thirds of the 1,200 pupils do - carries a swipe card pre-loaded with credit. The pupil queues for lunch, chooses food and carries it to the till, where a member of the lunchtime staff punches in the details of the choices and swipes the card. The value of the chosen lunch is automatically deducted from the card. Pupils on free meals have cards already loaded with the right sum, others can load them up with cash at slot machines in the dining hall.
The new system has also solved numerous other problems. Most important of these has been the abolition of dinner tickets and all the accompanying difficulties of balancing cash against thousands of tiny bits of paper - which can take up teaching or tutorial time. When dinner tickets were abolished, says John Jones, "there was a cheer from the staff you could have heard in London".
Queuing in the dining hall has also been drastically reduced - more than halving the time at the till - with beneficial effects on pupil morale and behaviour.
The pupils approve of the system and appreciate the way the cards work not only for dinners but also in the drink and snack vending machines around the school. "It means you don't have to bother about having the exact change," explains Jennifer Ellis of Year 7. Jennifer adds an extra pound;1 each day to her card for her snacks, and for something for her two-year-old brother. "I like to take some sweets home for David," she says.
The cards are robust, too. Jennifer's sports a very visible set of canine teeth marks. "I pressed them down a bit and the card works OK now," she says.
"And they survive the wash," adds her friend Sarah Kellard. "I should think lots of them have been through the wash by now."
The Year 7 pupils I spoke to could all see that cashless catering was part of the school's wider philosophy. "They treat you in a more grown-up way here," was how one summed it up.
Pupils rarely forget or lose their cards. In any case a lost card does not mean lost money - the card has no value outside school and because it carries a photograph it cannot be misused at school. More importantly, it can't be made the subject of theft or intimidation.
Ruffwood's cashless catering system was supplied by Absec Ltd. Each card carries the pupil's photograph and logos for the school. The important bit, though, is the microchip which is read by one of four tills. There are two coin and note "revaluators" in the dining area for pupils to load up their cards. Four drinks machines and four snack machines are also linked to the system. Overall management is by the Absec Card Management System running on a PC under Windows 95.
The system has more potential than meets the eye. It could, for example, report on what any particular child has been eating, which might be of use to parents or to teachers interested in educating pupils about nutrition. The card could also be made to do additional things, such as act as a library card or as an input device like electronic registration, currently handled at Ruffwood by optical mark readers.
A typical school system, says Absec, will cost from pound;7,000, depending on the school's exact requirements. The system at Ruffwood - in common with many innovations in the school - has been supported by industrial sponsorship, this time by GEC (Alshthom).
Absec Ltd, Quay West Business Centre, Suite 18 Trafford Wharf Road, Trafford Park, Manchester M17 1HH; tel: 0161 848 7444