Software can now monitor behaviour and attendance. Phil Revell reports
The biggest problem facing schools today? There's no shortage of candidates, but talk to teachers, not government ministers, and behaviour leads the field every time. Every year, more than one-third of teachers will experience violence from pupils, and 5 per cent are threatened or assaulted by parents.
So how can computers help? Most teachers would assume little, but they'd be wrong. The obvious answer is to log incidents so that you can spot the patterns and then make the appropriate management decisions. At Holte secondary school in Birmingham, teachers log incidents by category - from violence to smoking to talking out of turn - and the software collates the information to allow staff to see patterns, either for the individual, the class or the year group.
"We have been able to break up groups where students have formed negative partnerships," says the deputy head, Gordon Higginson. "We can see the effectiveness of our management measures, and it's given us information for next September's timetable."
Another advantage of the system, Sleuth from The School Software Company, is the way in which incident reports can be referred to as and when needed - useful when parents dispute events or claim an incident is an isolated case. Heads of year can show them computer print-outs so they can see how many incidents have been reported, and by how many members of staff.
Closely connected to behaviour is the problem of attendance. One million children a year play truant - 50,000 a day. When children are out of school they aren't learning and, for a minority, taking an afternoon off is the first step on the road to serious offending.
The main weapon against truancy is electronic registration. Trials have shown that such systems can cut absence by 10 per cent. They can deliver an absentee report 10 minutes after the day starts; most allow the register to be updated throughout the day.
"The biggest impact was on internal truancy," says Frank Briggs, deputy head at John Port shool in Derbyshire. "Kids were turning up, getting their mark and disappearing. The swipe cards had a dramatic impact on that."
The school fitted electronic registration eight years ago. With 2,000 pupils, it is one of the biggest secondaries in the UK: 13 buildings on a huge site with an extensive perimeter. Radun Systems used John Port as a pilot, fitting 95 swipe-card reader machines and cabling the school - at a cost of around pound;25,000.
The main concerns about such systems are the vulnerability of the machines - to chewing gum and super glue - as well as lost or forgotten cards. But John Port has found them robust enough and the vast majority of pupils remember their cards. These can also be used for internal security, the library and for cashless catering.
"You can use the 'Where is?' facility to find a child at any time," says Radun's Roger Watson. "If a child is in detention or playing netball after school and their mum rings to find where they are, a touch of a key will provide the answer."
But electronic registration is only the start in the battle against truancy. How do schools deal with persistent absentees? Whitehall recommends that schools should contact parents the same day if a pupil is absent without explanation. But teachers are teaching, and administration staff are hard-pressed.
One solution is to buy into a "home-call" service such as Truancy Call.
These use call centres or automated texting. Most persist until they make a contact - parents do not enjoy being nagged.
Whatever the system, it is only as good as the management follow-up, a point emphasised by Dame Jean Else at Whalley Range high school in Manchester. Her school uses Bromcom, and Dame Jean welcomes the up-to-date information the system delivers. "The figures are at your fingertips," she says. "But it's the quality of monitoring that is the key."
Whalley Range appointed a pastoral manager to chase attendance when up to 400 girls out of 1,700 were missing school each day. "Recently, if we have 50 pupils off, I'm concerned," she says.
Dame Jean stresses that once the pupils are attending again it's vital to keep them at school. To that end, Whalley Range runs a lunchtime radio station, sport and music during and after school, a breakfast club with morning television, step aerobics or ICTsessions. "It's got to be a school that the kids want to come to," she says. "Nobody ever mentions that."