A system out in a league of its own
On any day in England and Wales, between 10 and 40 per cent of students are absent from their secondary school. Almost all students are absent for some time; many will attend for only a small proportion of the school year and some will not attend at all. Absence on such a scale represents a considerable educational and social problem.
The Government's new arrangements for recording attendance have done little to help address the real causes of non-attendance - and may have hindered schools' attempts to solve the problem.
Schools which have reviewed their approaches to attendance seem to have done so in one of two ways. Some have sought to disguise the problem because they fear, with some justification, that these regulations are just another stick with which to beat schools in disadvantaged areas. Others have given attendance a high priority and have developed systems for encouraging good attendance.
Some schools have installed electronic systems of registration. There are a number on the market, though they are similar in the package of reports and statistical analysis which they offer. Most offer an analysis of attendance by student, class, year and whole school. They distinguish between authorised and unauthorised absence and will produce the statutory reports required by the Department for Education. Many produce letters to parents, and some analyse absence patterns.
They differ not so much in what they produce, but in the way the basic registration data is collected. The first of three ways this can be done requires information to be put in by typing or by use of a bar code or optical mark reader (OMR). The second uses swipe cards, while the third uses a system of hand held mini-computer handsets which beam information via radio waves.
All three systems share the advantage of new technology over traditional pen and ink methods: they produce information much more accurately, much more quickly.
Any school management team investigating an electronic system will need to consider their institution's needs before committing themselves to one system or another. My school looked for a system which was simple to operate for most staff and proof against accidental or deliberate interference from students.
Exercising these criteria, we quickly rejected the paper system of bar-code, typing or OMR, despite the fact that we already had an OMR, thanks to the Government's recent GEST initiative. We anticipated difficulties in using the OMR sheets accurately: they often require an exactness of pencil-mark which eludes even the most diligent form tutor, concerns recently confirmed by another local school which estimated that hours were wasted on crumpled or incomplete sheets rejected by the OMR.
As we were worried about the level of post-registration truancy, we also wanted a system which would allow registration of every class. We did not feel that any of the paper systems would make this a practical possibility.
Despite the attractions, we reluctantly decided against a swipe card system. It has many advantages and allows for instant communication of data for every lesson - it also requires virtually no work from staff. But we were worried about the numbers of cards going missing, even at the relatively cheap replacement rates being offered.
We were not entirely confident that the system would not lead to widespread fraud. I pictured one or two students arriving at school armed with bags full of cards belonging to other students who wanted to be "marked in". A London comprehensive had its system jammed by pupils who applied Superglue to each side of a card before swiping.
The system in my own school uses computer handsets to radio every form and class registration to a central computer. The central computer enables speedy access to information and rapid communication with parents. It is highly secure; no handset may be used without the teacher's four-figure pin number. The cable runs alongside the telephone wiring in ducting and all the radio transceiver units (RTU) are also out of sight in suspended ceilings or staff offices.
The handsets cost more than Pounds 300 to replace, but they are worthless to anyone but us and none have been stolen so far. They cannot even be used in another school because they are configured for use only at our site.
The system is not cheap. For a school with around 50 staff, it is likely to cost around Pounds 20,000, or more depending on how extended the site. However, we were aided by Pounds 10,000 from Gateshead's successful bid for GEST money to combat truancy. We also believe that the system will eventually save time, particularly among support staff, and will therefore be, to some extent, self-financing.
The major attraction of this system, however, is its potential for development into an advanced communications network, using palm-top computers with word processing, data base and spreadsheet facilities. These computers will act as full teacher organisers with radio pager, timetable facility, diary and bulletin board and will be able to access electronic mail and teletext.
Of course the crucial test is whether or not attendance levels improve. Early results indicate that they do. I compared attendance figures during the first 12 weeks of using electronic registration with the same 12-week period from two previous years. There was an improvement in all year groups, though it was more marked in older age ranges. Improvements in Year 7 were between 0.7 per cent and 1.1 per cent, while Year 11 showed a 7.6 per cent improvement over one previous year. Overall, there was an improvement of 2.6 per cent across the school.
Despite daily checks, we can find almost no evidence of post-registration truancy - it appears that the electronic system has virtually eliminated this. However, my impression is that there may be an increase in overall non-attendance among some students who feel there is less chance of being challenged over blanket truancy than for post-registration truancy.
David Grigg is deputy head of Kings-meadow Comprehensive, Gateshead.