A school in Lancashire is using an automated system to contact parents when pupils are absent from school in a bid to reduce truancy rates and raise standards.
"Like many schools in the country we have a problem with attendance," says Les Turner, head teacher at St Patrick's Catholic Primary School in Morecambe. Before the school started using its new automated parent contact system in January, unauthorised absentee rates were running at 1,200 school sessions, or 600 days, per academic year.
Turner explains that the area suffers from "seaside syndrome". The large amount of local temporary accommodation and high population turnover has had a knock-on effect on the school, resulting in a 25% annual turnover among its 200 pupils.
To combat the situation, Turner and the school secretary began scouring the registers every morning and calling the parents of absent pupils. However, this proved impractical and time-consuming. The school looked at the idea of using smartcards for keeping a record of attendance but they were deemed unsuitable because they could not provide an explanation of why a pupil was absent. So the school turned to a product called Truancy Call, which Turner had seen demonstrated at a National Association of Head Teachers conference.
At the end of morning registration, the secretary identifies the pupils absent from school without parental notification and the system begins automatically telephoning their parents with a recorded message. A screening system ensures that only the parent receives the message, and it keeps re-dialling until it establishes contact.
The parent can leave a message explaining the absence and give an expected return date. If they are unaware of the absence, the system can connect them to the school.
Printouts of overall and individual attendance records are supplied to officers from the Educational Welfare service who then visit the parents if necessary.
Turner says the new service has been well received by parents, many of whom now inform the school of absences in advance. More importantly, unauthorised absences for the last academic year fell to 400 sessions, or 200 school days, and Turner expects this figure to fall by a further 50% for the next academic year.
Following this success, the school has now declared a war on tardiness. The idea is to incorporate a "why was your child late?" message into the Truancy Call system and send an SMS text message to parents' mobile phones informing them of their child's late arrival. Parents will be able to reply by SMS or telephone the school.
Turner believes the cost of truancy cannot be overestimated. "A day lost in a child's education is a day you can never get back," he says.