Trials in absentia
According to the attendance data collected from schools, of the 400,000 or so children who miss school every day, some 50,000 haven't a satisfactory reason. These "unauthorised" absences have run at roughly the same rate, defying government efforts to reduce them, since records started in 1994.
There is, says the DfES, a glimmer of hope in the 2002-2003 attendance figures which show an improvement in unauthorised absence of 0.01 percent.
You don't need a degree in statistics to guess that this may not mean very much - and that's before you take into account the Ofsted-documented fact that schools vary widely in the way they define "authorised" and "unauthorised" absence.
The government has thrown a lot of money at the problem. Over the two school years from 2001 to 2003 they secured pound;11.25 million from the Capital Modernisation Fund which was spent on electronic registration in over 500 secondary schools, and the effects are being monitored.
The causes of poor attendance, though, are hugely varied, and that's reflected in the fact that although there's no more electronic registration money, there are funds for a broader approach that links behaviour, bullying and attendance. For example, 34 authorities are taking part in a pound;342 million Behaviour Improvement Programme that is already helping 17,000 children at risk of exclusion for truancy.
Schools know that improving attendance means tackling a raft of management policies - curriculum, teaching style, homework, classroom management, bullying, racism, home-school relationships. Monitoring attendance, though, has its place in this, and experience shows that when children and parents know that absence will be unerringly picked up and followed through, then casual days off tend to reduce. Electronic registration - extremely common now in the secondary sector - helps, because it shows patterns and spews out data accurately and quickly. The next step is for a system to be set up so that when a child is away there's a phone call to the parents the same day.
That first-day call, as well as the catching and deterring of truants, reassures parents that the school is on the ball and encourages them to ring in first. It puts attendance on the community agenda and promotes general home-school contact. It also eats up a lot of staff time.
The experience of Hagley Park Sports College, an 800-pupil secondary in Rugeley, Staffordshire, is typical. "We allocated a member of the office staff to the job," says assistant head Richard Monkman. "But it was taking up a lot of time, on a limited budget, just when the demands on support staff were increasing."
Unsurprisingly, there were technology companies that saw a market here for systems to do the whole job automatically. As a result schools now have a choice of products which, though often differing considerably in detail, all do essentially the same thing - they identify from the attendance software those pupils who are away for the first time that day. From the school database they pick up contact phone numbers, then they make a call with an automatic message saying that the child was absent at registration.
Essentially, that's what now happens at Hagley Park, where they installed Truancy Call about a year ago. For them, automatic calling works as follows.
Registers are taken on optical mark-reader sheets which are fed by into their Sims attendance software. Truancy Call identifies pupils on first-day absence and then displays them on screen. This gives staff the opportunity to cancel some calls, either because the child turned up after registration or simply because they know something that makes the call inappropriate.
Truancy Call then makes the calls. Parents hear a pre-recorded voice which first asks for a key press to confirm you're the person it wants and then says that the child was not at registration. The parent can simply press "1" to confirm that the call has been received, or "2" to speak to the school.
With Truancy Call in operation at Hagley for less than two terms, it's already clear that the system may well pay for itself in saved admin time.
A task that took one person more than a morning now operates largely in the background, with only a handful of calls or voicemail messages from parents.
But does it improve the absence figures? On that, there's more caution. "We think it's making a difference," says Richard Monkman, "but we'll know more after a full year-on-year comparison."
Another product, Groupcall, which is based on text messaging to mobile phones, has customers, including some primary schools, who use it in other ways. At The Ilford Jewish Primary School, although it is used to chase up non-attendance, it's proved useful in other ways - on one day when a flood closed the school, School Administrator Susan Senett was able to access the system from home via the web and keep parents informed.
"We use it all the time," she says, "Telling parents about after-school clubs, sports events, cancellations."
A third system is Informer for Schools from Voice Connect. Because it's text-message based, it can also be used as a general communication device, although later versions do offer the options of voice contact and email.
Tel: 0870 0464246 Cost: pound;2,000 to pound;5,000 for the first year depending on the size of the school. Then pound;500 to pound;750 per year technical support.
Tel: 0870 460 2134
Cost: Charged monthly - starting at pound;35 a month. Includes maintenance and 100 free text messages. Costs to some extent reflect levels of sophistication. A basic system may simply send a text message to a mobile phone and leave it at that. Something more complicated might ring round other contacts until it gets a response. You have to decide what you want.
Informer For Schools
Tel: 0116 232 4640
Cost: Between pound;5,000 and pound;10,000 depending on how many features are required. Plus an annual maintenance charge. Leasing arrangements available.
Thinking of buying one?
* School policy comes first. Decide on first-day contact (or not) and then look at ways of doing it - including personal contact, which has some obvious advantages
* If you want automation, look carefully at everything on the market. Visit user schools. Ask your IMS supplier (SIMS, CMIS, Phoenix etc) and your authority what systems they know of and can support. Trouble-free link to your IMS is essential
* Investigate costs - ask schools about the effect on phone bills
* Invest time in looking for funding - remembering that truancy can come under the heading of "behaviour"
* Anticipate management issues - roles in the school office for example.
* Inaccuracies in taking the registers feed through to annoyingly mistaken calls to parents.