It is a well-known fact that one of the most common early symptoms of the budding drop-out is poor attendance; this changes in character to big absences, the final absence of which is terminal. More often than not, whatever the original reasons for poor attendance, the poor attendance itself eventually becomes the overwhelming reason for dropping out - or withdrawing. Too much work has been missed, catching up becomes unthinkable, unrealistic or both, and all problems associated with college can be elegantly solved by removing college from the equation.
Experienced student-watchers are well aware that if the early symptoms are addressed effectively, the chances are that the causes can be tackled and the student can be retained: drop-out and drift can be removed as elements of the college's culture, and the culture of the college can be moved forward.
The snag is that addressing the symptoms early enough usually depends on the personal tutor, who, aside from having a crowded agenda, is not exactly well-placed or even well employed chasing students who aren't there and, on a weekly basis, assuring an institutional standard of uniform attention to drifting students.
The above factors led Sutton Coldfield College to pilot what is probably a UK further education first when it appointed an attendance officer in October 1996.
Linked to student records and the registration returns of the college information system, the attendance officer works in tandem with personal tutors and an institutionally determined benchmark of attendance, requiring attendance officer action.
It is very early days, but all the signs are that a considerable number of students who would normally have drifted into drop-out have been retained.
The system is simplicity itself, with a default to attendance officer action should the personal tutor not act on the information supplied. The default-to-action is crucial in providing back-up support for personal tutors. Without it you're back to square one, relying on tutors doing automatically and in concert what, in the real world, only a few do by inclination and disposition.
Essentially, things are triggered by the attendance officer receiving from CIS the details of students whose attendance has fallen below the benchmark for a given period (eg, 70 per cent in the past three weeks). We'll take the fictitious student John Smith as illustration. According to his student's record, John is a first-time "offender". His tutor is notified by the attendance officer. If there is no feedback from the tutor, then the attendance officer sends out "Letter A" in a series of standard letters. A copy is appended to John's stud-ent record and his tutor is notified.
The standard letters, from the initial letter to the student, through letters to parentsguardians, lead to actions ranging from the student having to discuss absences with the personal tutor, reporting to the attendance officer, through to interviews with the appropriate department manager, through to the ultimate invitation to a withdrawal (exit) interview. This relationship between the attendance officer, the personal tutor and the tutor's line manager (department manager) also ensures default attention to student attendance.
Thus, we have a system that guarantees a series of letters and documented actions which assist in bringing students back on-course or culminate in a withdrawal interview. And the withdrawal interview is itself designed to be supportive. In fact, students welcome the withdrawal interview. It turns exit into a positive experience, looking to the future and at ways in which the college can continue to offer support.
Moreover, the system generates auditable evidence of what the college is doing about student retention, and acts as a useful mechanism for collecting data on reasons for poor attendance and withdrawal: grist to the quality assurance mill, and a method of helping to maximise responsiveness to the college's clients.
Dr Martyn Park is curriculum support manager of Sutton Coldfield College