Turning up the heat on truancy

Text messaging is being used to notify parents when pupils skip school - but there's more to this technology than telling tales. Kate Hilpern reports
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Back in 2000, Stephen Clarke read a news article about two primary school children who went missing. The parents had turned up at the school gates only to discover that their offspring had never arrived there in the morning. The school's defence was that they simply didn't have enough resources to let every parent know if a child didn't turn up for classes. Clarke spotted a niche in the market before he'd got to the end of the article.

"I was running a telecommunications company and immediately saw the potential in creating a system that automatically notifies absent pupils' parents by e-mail, phone or text," he says. He knew he was onto a winner when he discovered that even schools that did attempt to contact parents often found the chore a complete nightmare. "It often took a member of staff all day to individually phone up each parent," explains Clarke.

Within four months, Clarke had developed his product, Truancy Call. Since its inception in 2000, it is now used by over 20 per cent of secondary schools across the UK and 50 schools in Australia. Not only is the company making money - and plenty of it - but it has set trends in an ever more competitive marketplace.

It wasn't the easiest product to pitch in the early days, admits Clarke. "We had success in piloting our product in 20 schools in the West Midlands, but it was difficult to persuade schools to actually pay for it. They had never come across anything like this before. Furthermore, there was - and still is - no legal requirement for them to contact parents, which might have helped our case."

Clarke overcame the problem by providing a 30-day free trial. "Once schools saw the impact of removing the burden from their staff, they were generally convinced," says Clarke. "There were three things they seemed to particularly like - first, how little technical know-how is required; second, the fact that the product bypasses the school's phone system; and finally that the message can go out in several different languages."

Also in Clarke's favour was the fact that he was able to get Capita Education Services to work alongside Truancy Call so that the product could be smoothly integrated into the schools' information management systems. "Having a FTSE 100 company backing us definitely gave us kudos. It was reassuring for schools that we weren't a fly-by-night organisation," he says.

The awards that Truancy Call has won in recent years haven't been bad for business either. In 2004, Clarke was awarded Orange Small Business Person of the Year, while the company won Most Enterprising New Business. The company was ranked fifth as a Rising Star in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 in 2005 and most recently, it became a 2007 finalist in the Innovative Business of the Year category of the Fast Growth Business Awards. There have been other nominations and awards too.

Clarke is not surprised that other similar companies have sprung up in recent years. "It was inevitable and I don't have a problem with it. I think there is room in the marketplace for more than one of us."

The company's chief competitor is Groupcall, whose Messenger system so impressed Sir Bob Geldoff that he agreed to become a founding partner to the company. Groupcall agrees that the competition is healthy, although founder Lawrence Royston says a lot of the smaller companies that come along quickly disappear. "Some stay and definitely have something to offer. But many find they don't have the infrastructure to deal with high volumes of numbers or to keep pupil information all on the schools' site - which is essential for confidentiality," he says.

Groupcall has expanded into the housing sector - where, for example, automated reminders are sent to council property tenants about repairs - as well as to some commercial organisations. "The flexibility of our product means there are endless options," claims Royston. "Say you have a big football team, with a database of supporters. If there is a time limit on an offer, you can inform people. Alternatively you can remind them when their season ticket was up for renewal."

Truancy Call Ltd has taken the decision to stay within the public sector for now, but it is venturing into healthcare. "We have a product called Remind Patients, which lets them know 48 hours before an appointment, giving them an opportunity to cancel. The NHS loses tens of millions of pounds from people not showing up. We are currently involved in the tender process with quite a number of hospitals."

But the company's other products remain where its roots are - in education. "Call Parents came about as a result of feedback from schools," says Clarke. "It's a system that informs parents of nicer things than absence - such as parents evenings coming up, or that school reports will be going out that day. This system allows the school to select any group of parents and send any type of message."

The growing media hype about bullying inspired Clarke to develop some software in this area too, resulting in Text Someone - which encourages victims of bullying to report incidents using SMS technology. "We discovered that the main challenge around bullying for schools is a failure of pupils to report incidents, particularly outside school hours. With our product, pupils can go online to a secure website or contact the school by mobile or phone at anytime, which immediately alerts someone in the school with a view to replying. A lot of schools have found it a good ice-breaker to begin some communication with them around bullying. The added beauty of it is that messages are logged, so schools have a record of what is reported. "

Increasingly, the company is being approached by local authorities for bespoke services too. "We have created a product for Barnsley Council, for instance, which increases the number of electronic ways in which school mentors can correspond with their mentee pupils," says Clarke.

Meanwhile, Clarke has worked with Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council to help address their problem of parents taking children out of school for longer than they originally say they will. "This product enables schools to type in the agreed return date and the parent gets a reminder of that date nearer the time. That message can be sent anywhere in the world, and the local authority's schools say it has helped to tighten procedures. Even better news for us is that they are happy for us to market it to other local authorities."