Wake-up call for the truants

7th March 2003 at 00:00
A new automated phone system can make it easier for schools to warn parents that their children have gone AWOL, writes Bernard Adams

Truancy Call is a computerised system for identifying truants and phoning their parents - repeating the calls until there is an answer. Where truancy is rife, it has already been successful. But it is also proving popular with very large schools wanting to keep track of unauthorised absences.

The system, started in 2001, is already installed in 150 schools and 20 more are testing it.

Stephen Clarke, director of Truancy Call, believes that if the Government wants to reduce the current number of 50,000 truants a day, traditional methods of registering absences and calling parents will be inadequate.

"Until now," he says, "first-day contact has been an unrealistic objective for schools because teachers and support staff simply do not have the time or resources to undertake manual calls on a regular basis throughout the day."

What Truancy Call does is to call, email andor text parents automatically on the first day that a pupil is marked absent without explanation or authorisation.

If there is no reply, the automated system will continuously call or message parents - who will have supplied their numbers and addresses to the school - until the early evening. The calls will continue the next day unless the parent phones the school.

One place where truancy is a real issue is Hillingdon's Pupil Referral Unit at Yiewsley in Middlesex, which deals with about 50 pupils who have been excluded, or are in danger of being excluded, from local schools because of behaviour problems. This PRU (known locally as Hillingdon Tuition Centre) started to use Truancy Call in September 2002 and can already report a 4 per cent reduction in absenteeism.

Brian Marris, the deputy head of the unit, says that previously first-day contact with parents was extremely difficult as he did not have the staff to place calls.

"The responsibility for phoning the parents used to take two or three hours of the centre receptionist's time each day," he says. "Now it's more like half an hour - the time taken to activate the calls and listen to recorded messages as the parents phone in."

Marris is pleased with the investment in Truancy Call: "It tells parents quickly that their child is not at school, and if truancy becomes an issue which goes further - to court, for example - the evidence of the number of calls made to the parents through the automated system can be useful." He emphasises, however, that parental consent was required before operating the system.

Imagine, now, a very different institution - a huge inner-city school such as Graveney in Tooting, West London. It has 1,800 pupils aged 11 to 18, of whom up to 60 may not turn up on any one day. Only a small proportion will be truants, while the others will be absent for a host of reasons, from straightforward sickness to family crises, or from medical appointments to attendance at religious festivals.

"In a school as large as this," says Cynthia Rickman, the school's bursar, "it was often impossible to reach the parents before the second or third day of absence."

Graveney had already adopted electronic registration - which makes operating Truancy Call easier, but is not essential. Once the day's absentees have been collated centrally and passed on to the system's Birmingham call centre, the phones of parents with absentee children begin to ring - sometimes as early as 8.30am.

The message is delivered using a computerised voice, which can be customised: Adderley primary in Birmingham, for example, has 470 pupils from one ethnic group, so parents can be called in Urdu.

Graveney has done two surveys on Truancy Call. Parents are sometimes nonplussed when they hear the synthesised voice - and not all are pleased to be phoned so frequently when they may not have had the chance to call in.

Teresa Engley, attendance co-ordinator and head of Year 11 at Graveney, thinks that Truancy Call has had the effect of "making parents keener to call in" to explain absences. "Since the system came in two years ago," she says, "unauthorised absences have gone down to 0.1 per cent."

Truancy Call costs pound;2,000 to pound;5,000 to install, and there is an annual maintenance charge.

Stand T28

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