Scram! It's the dogger man
It's nine o'clock on a bright Tuesday morning in May and at Lochend Community High, in Glasgow's Easterhouse district, the pupils are now in registration.
Steve Frampton, Lochend learning community's education liaison officer (formerly known as the school attendance officer), has been at work since 7.30am, his usual start time. He comes in early to retrieve messages from Truancy Call, the school's electronic absentee tracking and parental communication system, arrange the day's schedule and, in this instance, sort out paperwork from the previous night's monthly attendance council meeting.
"It's going to be a quiet day with only nine home visits scheduled," he says. On a typical day the "dogger man", as he is known particularly to pupils who dog school, has to door-step about 15 homes.
Before we set off on our cold-calling mission, we visit a couple of the feeder primaries to catch up on what's happening there. Although Lochend High is in attractive looking new-build premises, with a sports hall, two gyms, five sports pitches and a floodlit area, most of the primary schools we pass on our travels look rather the worse for wear: more like barracks shored up against attack from the outside than community schools. But inside two of them, the contrast is marked: bright, colourful art displays, a warm atmosphere, a tangibly positive ethos stacking itself bravely against the odds.
One primary has three cases of persistent absenteeism which Mr Frampton will pursue the next day. For one pupil, there has been no response to letters, phone calls or attempted visits.
"It's not uncommon in cases of persistent absenteeism," he says. "You may find no one opens their door to us today."
It's 9.50am. Our first visit and the door does open. The woman, a single mother, invites us in. Her son, who is in S2, attends only intermittently: he has managed only three full weeks in the entire session.
"Is it that bad?" asks his mother. "It'll be because of his hay fever."
Over the winter?
"He just dusnae keep well."
A drastic improvement for the rest of this term and next - S3 is an important year - is needed, says Mr Frampton, or she will be asked to come to the school attendance council, which is the first step towards more formal proceeedings.
"I'll have a word with him tonight," says the truant's mother. As all the doors in the house are open and there's no sign of him, it can only be presumed he is out.
Mr Frampton notes that she hasn't responded to any letters and manages to get her mobile phone number to put in the Truancy Call system, which will repeatedly inform her of daily absences and request contact until she responds.
"Thanks for visiting," she says.
This is what Mr Frampton calls the lenient approach. Try not to alienate parents. Keep them onside as far as you can.
Although the authority's dress code is shirt and tie, he wears no tie. "I dress down to give the impression I'm only the messenger, he explains. "The approach has to be friendly. At the end of the day we can be dealing with second and third generation truants. That's the cycle we're trying to break."
There is no reply at the second door. It's a persistent truant and a difficult family situation. They are housed in one of the smart new brick houses that form part of the spreading regeneration patchwork that is Easterhouse today.
As a second letter requesting contact goes through the box, a cat watches from the broken window of a wrecked car in the garden next door.
Visit three. A young man lets us in. As we enter, a barking dog sends a tall cupboard door - there is no cupboard attached - crashing over the hall. No carpets. Little furniture. The man is trying to control two dogs at once.
In the living room the truanting pupil is watching a sci-fi video. The sound stays blaring. He can't come back to school, says the man. It's to do with a violent incident some of his family were involved in. It's difficult to hear.
The truant looks slightly bemused to see the dogger man but the video is what really interests.
A change of school is needed, says the young man, the boy's step-father.
Social services have been and are coming back. Does he know, asks Mr Frampton, they have to put in a placing request?
"Whatever," says the man.
The video is silenced while some details are discussed. In this house you don't sit down. You are never invited to.
There is no response at the next house. An official letter will be sent.
There are some serious concerns here.
In the car, we pass a mother with a primary aged pupil, a persistent absentee, and then two secondary aged boys walking along. We will see quite a few more on the streets before the morning is out.
Visit five. A third year pupil with an attendance record of only 13 per cent. The grandmother talks at the door. The mother is in hospital. The pupil will be coming back. She says she has a meeting arranged with pupil support for the next day. She mentions the teacher by name.
It's now 10.45am. A mother answers at the next house and stays on the doorstep.
She hasn't come to three attendance council meetings. She didn't know anything about them, has received no Truancy Call messages (although the number the service is ringing is confirmed as correct) and no registered letters have been received (although none of the three sent has been returned undelivered).
"My man'll prove it," she says unperturbed. "He's away to sign on."
Mr Frampton has also hand delivered letters. The week before, the mother had watched from the window as he posted one. She is warned that the Children's Panel may now become involved. The problem is getting serious.
Across the road two school-aged teenagers are watching. One whistles aggressively. It sounds like a challenge.
Just then her man comes around the corner. She repeats to him that they have received no calls or letters. He backs her up in a few words and gives us a look.
Time to move on.
Mr Frampton has never been set upon but his car has been broken into and colleagues have been threatened, he says.
"The worst part of the job is the isolation and the apprehension, because you don't know what you will be faced with in any stair or at any door," he says.
"There are health and safety issues. Police or social work wouldn't knock on these doors on their own. The only back-up we have is a mobile phone."
The next two doors stay silent and closed. Sometimes Mr Frampton will call on homes between 7am and 8am on his way into work.
"They expect you to call after nine in the morning. Calling on them early, they might open the door, because they don't think it'll be you.
"But that's a drastic measure."
At the last house a friendly big sister, a former pupil, opens the door and says her wee sister's been ill - breathing difficulties, vomiting - and is at the doctor's with her mum. She smiles to see the dogger man, tells him proudly about her new job and says her sister will be back soon. There is no one here he can pursue matters with, although the pupil has been absent for most of the past few weeks.
As we take a stroll around the local shopping centre where truants will sometimes hang out, he chats to a couple of senior pupils on exam leave and a parent greets him with a cheery "Hallo you, school attendance man!"
Mr Frampton is happy to be part of the fabric of Easterhouse, an area for which he has a real liking. A former army engineer and outdoor education officer, he enjoys his job.
"It can be depressing," he says. "You think you've got the problem solved and then it starts up again. But there are many enjoyable aspects, such as the people, the pupil support staff I work with and some of the parents I meet.
"The thing is not to let them get you to the stage of 'Why should I bother if they don't?' You have to remember it's for the children and that's what makes it worthwhile. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't. And we have been increasing attendance in the past three years because of the dedication of all our staff, not least pupil support."
Mr Frampton now faces an afternoon of paperwork from our visits, checking today's absences and responses on Truancy Call and preparing for tomorrow.
Pupil support draws his attention to a parent who has failed to attend the sheriff court on several summonses. This is a case that has gone from the school attendance council to the Children's Reporter to the court. A warrant will now be issued to enforce her attendance.
"It's out of our hands now," says Mr Frampton.
"I've never been called to a court hearing yet. It's a possible fine of up to pound;1,000 or up to six months imprisonment.
"How many of our parents can afford a fine like that?"