High-tech pupil registration with swipe cards, radio-linked computers or optical mark reader forms can solve problems for many schools. Were it not so, they would not be investing so much money in them - but they can cost as much as Pounds 40,000.
There are other solutions, though, that lie half way between high-tech and the traditional register. One obvious answer is to employ someone to key data into the computer from paper registers. This can work well, and it does not preclude adding technology. Suppose, though, that you were to build on the manual entry method by redesigning the school register to make it easier to use. At the same time you could build in space for the various government requirements that have arisen since 1990. This is what attendance consultant Colin d'Angelo has done with his ISA (Improving School Attendance) system - a register for the teacher and software for handling the data.
His register is bigger and easier to use and to read - with plenty of space for comments, for example, and for absence codes. The pack also includes supporting summary forms and documents, and the easily learned piece of computer software into which summaries from the register are entered from the computer keyboard.
The fundamental problem, Mr d'Angelo believes, is not truancy but a casual attitude to attendance. The figure of 90 per cent attendance, seen as acceptable in education, is, he believes, not good enough.
A huge number of the absences are, he suggests, "not real sickness at all". Schools should, he believes, track this sort of absence and tackle it early by making sure, for example, that parents do not treat a nursery school or early years department as a voluntary cr che: "By Year 9 we'll be talking about truancy, and it will be far too late."
His system reveals attendance by "complete weeks" rather than just percentages. This, he feels, is more illuminating and more motivating for pupils - an improvement in the number of complete weeks is easier to visualise than a percentage improvement. And the graphs and tables which his software produces show such patterns with great clarity.
ISA prints out the summaries that the Department for Education and Employment requires, and supporting documents include cards for entering particular concerns and forms by which senior management can give feedback to tutors.
Mr d'Angelo is not opposed to more expensive hi-tech registration systems - "Eventually that's the way it will go" - but he feels that many schools and teachers are not ready to give up the manual register. This is borne out by the growing number of schools taking up his system - three authorities, and a further 130 schools have bought it.
Steve Pemberton, senior teacher at Halyard High in Bedfordshire, says that his school had examined other, more technologically advanced, solutions, but found that, at least for the time being, ISA was the most suitable: "It's cheap, and the registers are far clearer for tutors and education welfare officers to use."
My own feeling is that to mark attendance with paper and pen is anachronistic. However, there is no doubt - and not all suppliers appreciate this - that teachers are tenacious lovers of the paper register and it will be some time before every teacher feels happy without it, and in the meantime the kind of solution represented by ISA clearly has a great deal to offer - particularly as it is very cheap.
ISA Attendance Registers - Pounds 2.50 each. Computer software - Pounds 89. Additionally, there are various inexpensive summary forms and incentive stickers. 152 Culverley Road, London SE6 2LA. Phone and fax: 0181 461 0189