A school without walls

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Computers are being used to monitor truancy and entice excluded or unwilling pupils back into class. But, says Gerald Haigh in the first of threearticles, the machines could redefine the school

According to the Government's Social Exclusion Unit, truancy and exclusions have reached a crisis point. Determined to do something about this, Labour has set up a ministerial taskforce charged with setting and chasing up targets for schools and local authorities to aim at.

There is clearly a place for technology in all this. As the Social Exclusion Unit reports, good practice on the prevention of truancy might include "computerised registration so schools can identify patterns and possible causes, for example particular groups of children who are truanting or particular lessons that are being missed."

The first step to control truancy is to know about it. Parents have the right to assume that their children are in school and that they will be told if they are not. Ideally, once the form tutor has marked absent a pupil with a shaky attendance record, it is a matter of minutes before someone phones home. This assumes, though, that the teacher will mark the register accurately and on time; that the information will be passed to whoever has to take action; and that parents can be contacted reliably and quickly.

You can do this with a paper register, a red pen and someone running messages. Information and communications technology (ICT) makes the job easier. The register can be "marked" on an optical mark reader sheet which is then read into appropriate computer software by a machine in the school office. Such a system linked to the SIMS attendance package is in use in a high proportion of secondary schools.

Another option is to let pupils register themselves with swipe cards. At Queen Elizabeth's School in Barnet, for example, sixth formers have been "swiping in" for a year now, using readers linked to the SIMS attendance package. The rest of the school successfully uses OMR registers, and although systems manager Jeremy Dhondy feels that at some time in the future all pupils may carry a multi-purpose card - for lunch, library, attendance - this is still some way off. He says: "It undoubtedly pushes the responsiblity for attendance recording from the teacher to the pupil, and while that's OK with sixth formers, there are doubts about extending it to others."

This is the stance taken by most schools. They want to trust pupils, but are reluctant to open a window for the small minority who are likely to truant. Some schools manage by keeping a careful eye on the pupils as they swipe their cards but, given the layout of many schools, rigorously supervising the pupils as they swipe their cards could wipe out the advantages of having them in the first place.

The jury is still out, though, on swipe card registration, and we at Online are particularly interested to hear of schools which use it successfully with pupils other than sixth formers. Perhaps the most sophisticated option is for teachers to "mark" the register on a hand-held terminal which exchanges data with the school office - using SIMS software if necessary - by radio link. Bromcom's wNet (formerly RadioEars) does it this way. Its advantage over other systems is that it eliminates the need to transfer paper from classrooms to the office. This means that the register can be marked as many times a day as the school wants - every lesson if necessary. So it is much easier to check on pupils who turn up for registration and then disappear, or who are selective about which lessons they attend. This "internal truancy" is a real problem in some schools.

There is another possible gap in the chain. What if parents are not on the phone? Or are not home most of the day? One answer is for the school to give them a pager. This is available from Bromcom as part of its attendance package.

Bromcom's wNet is expensive - Pounds 20,000 seems a typical figure. However, the existence of a radio network in the school opens up other possibilities for communication between teachers and, importantly, for the collection of assessment data in the classroom and its transmission to a centralised bank.

AT King Edward VII School, Melton Mowbray, Bromcom is now very much a part of life, not only for registration but also for marking and assessment in the classroom. Says deputy head Peter Woodhead: "The thing that's really exciting is using the system to record student progress. Our whole policy and practice on monitoring only works because we have this system."

If swipe cards and radio-links verge on hi-tech surveillance, consider the more contentious possibilities. Many schools now have restricted access, supported by security video-cameras. In most cases, heads are adamant that this will not be used to observe pupils, but the possibility for spotting escapers after registration is clearly there, and it is but a small step to the point where cameras are deliberately positioned to catch them.

Schools have to face up to the ethics of this. There are some basic questions to ponder. When you have electronically identified your truants, paged their parents and then had the recalcitrant pupils picked up in a shopping mall by a truancy patrol, just how good for learning will they be? And what will be their effect on the others in the class?

Technology is an exciting tool, filled with creative and liberating possibilities. If we concentrate on using it to force unwilling pupils into school, what does this say about the way we want to educate our young people? Should we not be thinking about how to win back disaffected youngsters, and looking at how ICT can help with this?

The Social Exclusion Unit's Report recognises that schools have some responsibility for holding on to their pupils, pointing out that "there are many examples of schools with similar intakes and results, but different truancy rates".

Making good use of computers to make lessons more interesting is only a part of this. Arguably the most exciting development in educational technology is going to be about breaking down barriers between school, home and the rest of the community, so that pupils can return to learning without necessarily going back to school full-time.

Seen in this way, ICT opens the possibility of realising the vision of the more flexible school, with negotiable boundaries which has been in the minds of many educational thinkers for many years, starting perhaps with the radical "de-schooler" Ivan Illich. If you can break down the big formal school in some way, say these critics, and remove the element of crowd control, then you can perhaps create genuine learning communities, reaching out to experts as and when they are needed.

Here, surely, is where today's information and communications technology will come into its own. The computer, linked with other learners via the World Wide Web, as well as with experts who may or may not be teachers, is an efficient tool for self-directed learning.

With its aid, the excluded pupil (meaning any pupil who either cannot or will not go to school, or has been forbidden to do so) can make contact with experts - who may or may not be teachers; can do assignments other than by turning out pages of writing; can learn without fear of ridicule, failure or punishment.

To this extent, distance learning with ICT might well, far from being a second best substitute for classroom work, turn out to be demonstrating a much more powerful way of educating our young people.

That this message is beginning to take root is seen not only in some of the initiatives, such as the pan-European Topilot project for travelling children, but also in projects such as that planned by Stephen Heppell of Anglia University's Ultralab, whose NOTschool.NET - a "virtual community of teenagers placed out of school" - will be launched in pilot form during the coming academic year.

The Ultralab scheme has influential support from those who see it is a means of attacking the problems of truancy and exclusion. Arguably, though, it will also question some of the assumptions about formal schooling. The fact that Stepehn Happell's project has the stated aim of returning excluded pupils to learning, rather than of returning them to school, is easily missed at casual reading, but is highly significant.


Sims Capita Education 01234 838080


Bromcom 0181 461 3737


NotSchool.Net is at the Ultranet

website www.ultralab.ac.uk

NotSchool.Net page 8

Fairground attractions page 10

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