Invention and the modern truant

Can technology help schools to keep track of absent pupils? Caitlin Davies visits the Bett show at Olympia to find out
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The Independent Online

Most teachers know what it's like when a well-behaved class suddenly turns into a roomful of riotous individuals. What they don't have is the time or resources to track patterns in behavioral changes. But new software can show exactly when incidents occur and, in one case, changing the school diet was all it took to resolve the problem.

Most teachers know what it's like when a well-behaved class suddenly turns into a roomful of riotous individuals. What they don't have is the time or resources to track patterns in behavioral changes. But new software can show exactly when incidents occur and, in one case, changing the school diet was all it took to resolve the problem.

Team-Teach Epar software, launched at the 2004 BETT educational technology show, aims to help schools find patterns in disruptive behaviour. Epar designed the software in conjunction with a school that caters for students excluded from mainstream education which wanted to know what factors might be influencing violent outbursts. This residential school traced one student's behaviour to a well-known breakfast cereal. Once this was excluded from the diet, the problem was solved.

The software helps teachers record serious incidents, including racist behaviour, by using a checklist. But is it that much easier than using pen and paper? Epar director John Bell says it is, especially in producing reports. Once the data has been entered, it's simple to find patterns such as the percentage of incidents happening at a certain time of day. Kent LEA has just ordered 829 copies of the software.

Tuesday is generally the worst day for student misbehavior, says Bell, sometimes because pupils are "on a come-down" on Monday when disruptive behavior is low. Team-Teach was one of hundreds of products showcased at the 21st annual BETT show at Olympia this month. Around 600 exhibitors took part, giving teachers the chance to compare, test and assess the latest ICT developments.

"Hayley is absent from school, please text a reply with the reason why & a return date" is the sort of message 250 UK schools are sending out to parents of absent pupils with a system called Truancy Call. Using a secure internet site, the school sends out messages via e-mail, SMS text and voice calling. Surrey county council has now installed the system in half its schools.

The idea is to slash the amount of administration time spent chasing the parents of absentees; deter pupils from absconding, and aid in child protection by quickly noting any children who have failed to arrive at school. "Most schools want the ability to communicate with parents," says company representative Richard Ledbury, "but doing it via the human hand can be difficult."

Such is the array of ICT products now available that it can take all day to look around the BETT show, which has the feel of a fairground, with neon lights, revolving displays and hi-tech booths. All the big names are here, from computer companies to software designers - even the Ministry of Defence has a stand - and interactive white boards are everywhere. But while there are special-needs exhibitors, at the nearby Hilton a more specialist show dedicated to this field is going on, organized by Inclusive Technology. Allison Littlewood, Inclusive Technology's PR manager, says their show attracts specialist American companies and the latest trend is the spurt in communication aids which help users control their environment, such as switching on a light or TV.

"Would you like a sweet?" a voice asks as I walk back along the row of stands. I turn to find a shiny blue robot called Oscar, whose job is to promote Dell products, offering me a mint in its metal hand.

"How far can you travel?" I ask.

"As far as I want," he says a little petulantly, swivelling his head an impressive 360 degrees as he searches for someone to give me a free ruler.

"This computerised robot is the only kind in the world," insists a Dell representative. "It's a great example of artificial intelligence." "Hey, not so much with the artificial," objects Oscar, and I wonder how long it will be before robots are introduced to combat misbehaviour and truancy.

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