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'Tough Theresa' was fearless, and would march on to the roughest estate like John Wayne routing the saloon bar buddies

The register lady visited yesterday. She's been around for years. I remember her from my own tender youth, though when I was in junior school she was a grey-haired gentleman called Mr Thistle and he visited once a term, opened the register and called out a handful of names. If he didn't hear a "Yes, Sir" and he couldn't find a reason, he went knocking on the absentee's house that morning. I only tried truanting once. On the way to school, and a dreaded arithmetic test, I told my mum I felt sick. She looked at me sympathetically, and we walked back home. When I said I didn't feel sick enough to go to bed, I got a good clout, and I didn't miss any more school.

Gemma text = These days, I'm astonished at how easily children avoid school, and how much their parents pander to the slightest cough or whim.

"It's your birthday? Have the day off, and ask your friends too. We'll go to Chessington." "Sorry Gavin wasn't in yesterday, but his hair needed cutting and we didn't want to waste any of the weekend." And then there are all the other events. OK, it's sad the rabbit died, but a week to get over the burial? Or the flight to Disneyland that George's parents booked during term time. I'm afraid he'll be off for two weeks, but could his teacher give him a little homework? But it's funny how, since Sats started, every child in Year 6 has turned up on time, every day, for the entire week.

During my first few years of headship in the 1980s, I was truly impressed by our register lady. At that time she was called the attendance officer, and families soon knew that if you weren't in school and there wasn't a good reason, Tough Theresa would be banging on your door within the hour.

She was fearless, and would march on to the roughest estate like John Wayne routing the saloon bar baddies. Theresa visited us every week without fail, and she was as fit as an Olympic athlete. For a year or so, our attendance soared.

No more, though. These days the register lady is a key cog in the education welfare service and a major role is to check that teachers are filling in registers properly. This isn't as easy as it might sound, as the bewildering range of abbreviated codes and indicators makes it akin to picking up a Russian primer for the first time. Now, I appreciate that filling in registers is important, particularly as they could be used in court, but checking us every term seems a little excessive. And it's not just my school, of course, but every other school in the local authority, so quite a few hours of truant-catching time is being used up. And when a child has taken lots of time off school, there's the usual welter of form-filling to be done, often for a result that makes you wonder if it was worth the effort.

Take Darren, for example. He's six, already beyond his mum's control, and long since separated from his absentee dad. Mum wants him to go to school, and most days she gets him there, though usually very late. In school, he's fine. He's able and works hard, and appreciates the clear boundaries. At home, there aren't any boundaries, because his mum is unable to create any.

If Darren wants to stay up half the night, he does. And then he'll sleep in, of course. The best the welfare service can come up with is to suggest Darren attends "anger management" courses. And as Darren does get to school most days, he's a low welfare priority.

Soon, he'll truant. In the meantime, let's make sure we're all using the right ink in our registers.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.

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