Computer systems helping schools to combat truancy

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A GROWING number of schools are investing in computerised registration systems in their efforts to combat truancy.

Recalcitrant pupils wanting to skip lessons have found it easy to turn up for school registration first thing in the morning and abscond later. But computer registration systems designed to monitor a pupil's attendance at each lesson and keep a record of it are already making it more difficult for truants to go undetected.

Stoke Newington School in Hackney, east London, an 800- strong comprehensive, is among the first to pilot the Schools Registration System software by Johnson and Pinnock. Under this system, teachers take the register at every lesson by marking special pink sheets; these are fed into an 'optical mark reader' which provides teachers with a clear, daily print-out of which pupils have missed which lessons.

Robin Chambers, the headmaster, believes the improved record system will enable teachers to follow up truancy problems more swiftly.

'We should be able to spot the moment at which a child starts to disappear from classes and address the problem before it becomes endemic,' he said. 'It is already having an effect: some pupils are really surprised that they are being caught so quickly, when they used to get away with it.'

Stoke Newington School has introduced the system for 14 to 16- year-olds, at a cost of pounds 5,000- pounds 6,000 for software, hardware and training, and will review it later this month. Mr Chambers said there had been initial difficulties in staff inputting data correctly, but he was 'reasonably confident' these could be resolved.

He estimated that the average school attendance for 15 to 16- year-olds in inner-city comprehensives was about 70 per cent, compared to an average of 90 per cent or over for 11 to 12-year-olds.

The Government recently pledged pounds 8.6m to help schools combat truancy, and two thirds of the 64 local education authorities that have received grants plan to spend it on some kind of computerised system.

Some are experimenting with 'swipe cards': pupils carry their own electronic identity card and 'swipe' it through a 'reader' at the beginning of each lesson.

This system is more expensive to install than the optical mark reader - Maureen Henry, administration assistant manager at Stoke Newington School, estimated it would cost pounds 20,000. It is also potentially more open to abuse: Sue Clark, at the Department for Education, said one pupil could easily 'swipe' a bunch of cards while their owners played truant.